France's Call for the Establishment of a Mediterranean Union

A Rehash of an Old Pledge?

France's president Nicolas Sarkozy called for the launch of a Mediterranean Union. But is this seemingly new proposal no more than a relaunch of an old project that has already failed? Catherine Cornet takes a look

Nicolas Sarkozy (photo: dpa)
Nicolas Sarkozy reiterated his desire to establish a "Mediterranean Union". Catherine Cornet doubts whether this proposal can be taken seriously

​​It is now sadly apparent that the Euro-Mediterranean project, which was launched with the Barcelona Declaration in 1995, has been a failure. Europe and the countries of the southern Mediterranean were unable to identify coherent and efficient frameworks for discussion.

Since September 11, the instability of the Middle East and scepticism regarding Europe's political role on the international stage - particularly regarding its relationship with the United States - has made honest dialogue impossible.

Furthermore, Turkey's recent elections and its decision to intervene in Kurdistan have divided the Member States of the European Union. During a recent state visit to Morocco, France's president, Nicolas Sarkozy - who advocates a strict immigration policy and opposes Turkey's accession to the European Union - reiterated his desire to establish a "Mediterranean Union". But can this proposal be taken seriously?

Diplomatic amnesia?

In view of the fact that the European Union has put its dialogue with the Mediterranean on hold since its enlargement to the East, an initiative of this kind would certainly be useful. However, in typical Sarkozy style, the proposal that he has been lauding since his electoral campaign as a completely new idea is not wholly convincing. In its vagueness, it is both elusive and consensual and when compared with the Barcelona project, it contains nothing new.

The vocabulary it uses has been lifted straight from the dictionary of the European Union: Sarkozy proposes a Union based "on four pillars: environment, dialogue between the cultures, economic growth, and security". The initiative is defined as a "common project involving all those who are interested in the future of the Mediterranean". Although some possible institutions have already been mentioned - a Mediterranean investment bank or a Mediterranean University, for instance - the proposal is not detailed enough to be properly assessed.

What is surprising is that France would not seem to have learned from the failures of the Barcelona process, failures that were demonstrated very clearly by the Mediterranean Culture Workshop launched by Jacques Chirac shortly before the end of his presidency. As if suffering from amnesia, the people involved in this workshop neglected to analyse any previous Euro - Mediterranean cultural initiatives.

In fact, although France does refer to the setbacks and shortcomings of the Barcelona process, it has not critically examined the reasons for its failure. In view of this fact, it is possible that Sarkozy's boastful declarations may foster a fear that the same mistakes could be made a second time around.

Europe's ineffective role as a mediator

From a political perspective, the Barcelona process has basically failed in its aim to foster dialogue between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Despite the fact that the EU was the main player in the peace process, its image as a major player on the international stage has been heavily undermined by the impossibilities of mediating in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

Today, Turkey's accession to the EU could represent a second pitfall for the Mediterranean Union. When Sarkozy speaks about a change of direction in "France's Arab policy", most observers will conclude that the Mediterranean Union is more of a new obsession in France's foreign policy and a means to prevent Turkey from acceding to the European Union.

An empty shell

Whereas Aujourd'hui le Maroc defers its opinion pending more details on the form "this famous and yet mysterious Mediterranean Union" might take, the Moroccan daily newspaper Nouvelle tribune du Maroc addresses the issue of its feasibility directly:

"Is this project in fact a chimera? The countries of the Maghreb, which are so torn apart by rivalry, are reacting to the idea with polite scepticism and there is no reason to believe that this will change. Despite the fact that the proposal foresees the establishment of the union during the second half of 2008 before the French Presidency of the European Union, the project currently resembles an empty shell; it is no more than an abstract concept."

The paper goes on to say that there is a patent lack of political will behind the selfsame French policy.

Funding the initiative

The feasibility of this ambitious project also rests on the hope that its members will kindly agree to make the necessary financial commitment. The International Herald Tribune identifies this as one of the main weaknesses of the proposal:

"One idea would be a tax on tourism in member countries, but that is unpopular in many of the poorer southern countries (…). Another source could be EU funds earmarked for its neighbourhood policy. But few countries in northern Europe want to bankroll a project that some perceive mainly as a vehicle for France's president to stake out a leadership role and pursue his country's own commercial and strategic interests."

It is worth noting in this regard that during his recent visit, President Sarkozy concluded civil and military contracts to the tune of € 3 billion with Morocco.

Covert bilateralism?

The issue of funding is intrinsically linked to the fact that France would appear to want to take its proposal forward on its own. Cristophe Ayad, Libération's special correspondent in Morocco, notes that none of France's European partners have reacted positively to the proposal thus far:

"Spain has no intention of tagging along behind France, to say nothing of London and Berlin, who are not keen on financing Paris' regained 'grandeur' in the Mediterranean". According to political scientist Olivier Roy, the initiative was not previously agreed with France's European partners. He deems the European Union "an efficient means for France to pursue its bilateral interests, but not a means of solving the region's problems".

The "Mediterranean Union" was mentioned for the first time on 6 May, the day of Nicolas Sarkozy's inauguration as president of the French Republic. On this occasion, Sarkozy declared that the time had come to "jointly build a Mediterranean Union that would draw Africa and Europe together", thus turning the Mediterranean Union into one of the goals of his presidency.

Six months later, however, the anticipated enthusiasm for the project has not been forthcoming from France's northern or southern partners despite his visit to Morocco and the vagueness of his proposal.

In the meantime, the areas of conflict continue to multiply in the Mediterranean, death tolls linked to illegal immigration to Europe rise day by day, and the Palestinian issue has rarely seemed so despondent and hopeless.

The Mediterranean deserves more than hazy declarations or recycled pledges disguised as novel new proposals.

Catherine Cornet

© Babelmed 2007

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