First Partner, Then Neighbour, Then Member State?
In February 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy raised the issue of the establishment of a "Mediterranean Union" or "Union for the Mediterranean". He did so without consulting Brussels, any other EU Member States, or Germany, which held the presidency of the EU at the time.
Following his inauguration, a number of models for the proposed union were considered: a revamped sub-regional co-operation based on the so-called 5+5 dialogue (France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Malta, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Mauritania and Libya);
Another consideration is a kind of EU for the Mediterranean region; an active integration of Turkey into the Mediterranean Union (instead of full EU membership); a union for all countries bordering the Mediterranean (including Libya, but excluding all Northern European EU Member States); and a union for all 39 members of the EMP (i.e. all EU Member States and the 12 countries of the southern and eastern Mediterranean).
Focus on the Mediterranean region
Other proposals reduced the role of northern EU Member States to that of "observers", or proposed the establishment of institutional links between the Mediterranean Union and the African Union (AU), the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC).
Although the concept is still at the drawing board stage, it is now certain that both northern EU Member States and the EU Commission will participate in the project.
Apart from its rather undiplomatic inception, the French initiative has at the very least achieved one thing: it has brought the Mediterranean region back into the focus of European diplomacy. That being said, it has so far been more of a subject for internal debate within the EU than anything else.
If this idea is to be developed into a workable, long-term concept, not only the countries of the southern and eastern Mediterranean must be actively involved in its development, so too must civil society organisations on both sides of the Mediterranean.
Otherwise the project threatens to go the same way as the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP, also known as the Barcelona Process), which was launched in 1995.
The EMP is a framework for cooperation between states, which is not supported by society. Although the EMP was based on a well developed concept, it has lost political and diplomatic support in recent years due to a lack of concrete results.
Reactions North and South of the Mediterranean
Thus far, the reaction of most countries on the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean has been somewhat reserved. Turkey has been understandably sceptical about the entire project, while Israel is concerned about the consequences for its close bilateral relations with the EU.
The governments of the countries of the Maghreb look favourably on the project since Sarkozy's state visits, but point to the existing structure of the EMP. Many of them considered the renaming of their status as part of the EU's neighbourhood policy - i.e. the change from "partners" to "neighbours" - to be a demotion.
Observers and civil society organisations are quite sceptical about the project. Thanks to his dynamism, Sarkozy himself is relatively popular not only in the Maghreb, but also in the Mashriq.
This helped him turn the initial scepticism of the Egyptian government into approval for the project. Although the Mediterranean Union is due to be officially established during the French presidency of the EU, its actual goals and instruments are still vague.
The intention is to tackle a large number of projects in the fields of business, water, energy, the environment, and migration, a fact that has led cynical observers to refer to it as the "union des projets" (union of projects).
Italy and Spain agreed to the project in December 2007. Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, however, pointed to the project's potential to split the EU on matters of inner-European co-operation and insisted on the involvement of all EU Member States.
Many consider the project to be first and foremost a ruse on Sarkozy's part to prevent Turkey from acceding to the EU. However, it is more than that; it is also an expression of France's desire to play a leading role in the Mediterranean region, a traditional sphere of influence for France and one in which it would like to "revive" its dominance.
In terms of a common European foreign policy, the French initiative calls into question the EU's common foreign policy instruments.
In the mid 1990s, France was one of the EMP's biggest supporters, while Germany and other northern EU Member States only joined the Barcelona Process reluctantly.
Now it is Finland and Germany who are rushing to the defence of the Euro-Mediterranean structures that took so long to put in place. The intention is that the Mediterranean Union will complement the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP) and the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP).
However, after the sobering experiences gained with the EMP and the ENP to date - which were also supposed to complement each other starting in 2004 - the prospects are not all that rosy.
Instead there are signs that the number of concepts and instruments is growing - as is their incoherence - thereby creating confusion about the union's actual goals, mechanisms, and partners, both in Europe and in the South, as well as among the public on both sides of the Mediterranean.
Prospects for the project following Franco-German consensus
Once Berlin and Paris reached agreement, the European Council approved the principle of the Union for the Mediterranean in March 2008. The new name, "Barcelona Process: Union for the Mediterranean", is intended to reflect the upgrading of the Barcelona Process to a union.
This union will include both the Member States of the EU and the countries bordering the Mediterranean. It will probably have a rotating presidency and a small general secretariat along the lines of the G8 summits.
The Commission has been asked to draw up proposals for the founding conference that will be held in Paris in July 2008. Although the intention is that Brussels will fund the Mediterranean Union, it has not yet been actively integrated into the development of the project concept.
The Commission's policy of watching to see how things develop before giving its approval to the project is in stark contrast to the EU's ambition to develop an independent, pro-active European foreign policy.
The institutions in Brussels should have adopted a clearer stance on this matter. The challenges in the Mediterranean have changed since 1995 (regional conflicts, the Iraq War, migration etc.).
It remains to be seen whether the as yet vague concept of the Mediterranean Union is the right answer to these challenges. Even more important than the nuances of its name is the question as to what the union will do for Euro-Mediterranean co-operation: will it deepen it, will it cause it to stagnate, or will it provide new impetus.
© Qantara.de 2008
Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan
Isabel Schäfer is among the academic staff of the study group Politics in the Middle East at the Free University of Berlin, Germany. The Euro-Mediterranean Partnership is one of her main areas of research.