France and the Mediterranean Union

The New Dream of the Old Leading Role

Germany's Chancellor Merkel and France's President Sarkozy have agreed to transform the EU's current cooperation with its Mediterranean neighbours into a Mediterranean Union. Abed Othman asked Middle East expert Rudolph Chimelli what it's all about

Nicholas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel (photo: AP)
Distance and closeness: Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy are struggling to calibrate their positions on the Mediterranean Union

​​Mr Chimelli, for Arab countries, what is the advantage of the Mediterranean Union over the existing Barcelona Process?

Rudolph Chimelli: Not much. And that is the problem, because it goes without saying that a new organisation cannot create new facts. Some Arab countries – and by that I mean the countries of North Africa, the countries of the Maghreb – have already moved closer to Europe as a result of bilateral agreements.

This is not the case for the other countries, and a Mediterranean Union of the kind Sarkozy has in mind will of course immediately come up against huge obstacles. One obstacle is, of course, the fact that you can't include Israel on the one hand and Syria on the other in the Mediterranean Union without giving any thought to Palestine.

Another gigantic problem is the fact that Turkey, one of the largest of the Mediterranean countries, is not striving for any old kind of union; it wants to become a full member of the EU, and would never have accepted the Mediterranean Union as an alternative solution.

Now the entire project has been watered down considerably: it is no longer a case of France going it alone – after all, France was looking to reinforce its position in the EU by setting up the Mediterranean Union. But that’s all a thing of the past now. It is now to be a project involving all European countries and has been watered down considerably. What will actually become of it in practice remains to be seen.

You mentioned that France proposed the project in order to manoeuvre itself into a better position in the EU. Are there any other reasons for Sarkozy's initiative? And why choose this point in time to propose such an idea?

Chimelli: It has to do with the old role that France always dreamed of playing, namely to be the link that connects Europe – and the West as a whole – to the Arab world. Attempts to actually be such a link were strongest under de Gaulle, who actually took decisive steps in this direction. These steps were then developed right up until the presidency of Giscard d'Estaing. Efforts in this direction dwindled under Mitterrand and Chirac. Not much is left of them under Sarkozy.

The "Mediterranean Union" initiative is obviously intended to be a resurrection of this old idea. Sarkozy is actually closer to Israel than any other French president in the past forty years.

What does this mean for Germany and for the EU? How has this project influenced Franco-German relations? Or is everything back to normal since the meeting at the beginning of the week?

Chimelli: The project initially placed a great strain on relations because Germany of course immediately suspected – as did other countries in Northern Europe – that the French wanted to carve out a new role for themselves for which the other Europeans would be asked to foot the bill, or – to put it another way – to bear the financial burden. And there was resistance to this from the word go.

Angela Merkel feared a weakening of the EU and was just as vehemently opposed to it. She managed to push through most of her agenda at the meeting with Sarkozy in Hanover. The risks she saw in Sarkozy's initiative have been defused.

Interview: Abed Othman

© Deutsche Welle/ 2008

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

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