Sarkozy's Union for the Mediterranean

France as a Centre of Political Gravity

Nicolas Sarkozy has chalked up an initial success as a peace broker in the Middle East with the foundation of the Mediterranean Union. But how solid is the new collaboration, and what are the strategic considerations behind it? Bernard Schmid has the details

Nicolas Sarkozy (photo: AP)
Here's looking at you: France's President Nicolas Sarkozy sees himself as the initiator of the Mediterranean Union and godfather of a new peace process in the Middle East

​​Lord Ismay, NATO secretary general in the 1950s, famously referred to the organisation as an instrument "to keep the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down." Only a few years after World War II, this was pretty much consensus among the Western allies of the former anti-Hitler coalition.

When it comes to the "Union for the Mediterranean" (Union pour la Méditerranée, UPM) initiated by President Sarkozy and officially founded on Sunday, one might well say it was designed as an instrument "to keep France at the centre, the Maghreb and Africa down, and unwanted migrants out." France at the centre means Paris as a centre of political gravity.

This end has not been achieved as yet, as rival powers within the European Union – above all Germany and Spain – raised complaints and ensured that the plan was severely watered down. The new union of Mediterranean countries will not be structured around France as the politically and economically strongest country on the Mediterranean as originally planned, but around the EU as such.

Marking out zones of global influence

The forces behind the union are serious geopolitical conflicts over staking out and renegotiating zones of global influence. While France is intensifying its political and energy interests in the Mediterranean region, other European countries such as Germany, Poland and Sweden are looking towards Russia or the Ukraine. The difference of ideas on the EU's direction has caused plenty of tensions in the complex structure of the union. Particularly Nicolas Sarkozy's hot-headed actionism has repeatedly collided with Angela Merkel's sober strategic approach.

photo: AP
Political competitors over the leading role in the Mediterranean Union: Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy

​​Sarkozy mounted a charm offensive at the Paris conference, declaring that the objective of the Mediterranean Union is "that we learn to love each other instead of continuing to hate each other and wage war." It was the Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt who brought the jovial mood down to earth with a bump. He announced that Sweden welcomed the foundation of the "Union for the Mediterranean" in principle, but added – flying in the face of the pompous announcements of peace – that it wouldn't "change the world in one day."

By involving the entire EU as such, the new union has extended the size of the territory it covers, now making up 12 million square kilometres and 775 million inhabitants, up to the northern edge of the EU. Yet at the same time, it has given up a great deal of integration potential. And the northern and eastern powers within the EU will keep their feet firmly on the brakes. As the UPM does not have any budget of its own at this point but is dependent on funds from EU sources and project-related financing from the member states, it way well take some time for all the noble words to be propped up by actual deeds.

Joint policy with former colonies

One important exception, however, has made it through: when it comes to blocking out unwanted immigrants – from countries to the south of the Mediterranean and migrants arriving through them from the rest of Africa – the EU will soon be collaborating even "more efficiently" than to date with the states on the other side of the Mediterranean. States such as Morocco and Libya play an important role in this process.

image: DW
The northern and southern Mediterranean states from the Arab point of view

​​Sarkozy explained his ideas of a "Mediterranean Union" and "Eurafrica" for the first time during a public appearance in Toulon on 7 February 2007. Back then he was still campaigning for election as the right-wing presidential candidate. Sarkozy dedicated much of his speech in Toulon to justifying France's colonial past – and railing against an imaginary obligation for remorse and national repentance. Only to cut straight from the colonial past to his ambitious plans for the future.

Now France has won key diplomatic points by pressing Syria to announce diplomatic recognition of its neighbour Lebanon and steps towards reconciliation with Israel, on the eve of the UPM summit. This was by no means a spontaneous decision; in fact, France had been working towards this goal over a year and a half of tough diplomacy, flexing its influence in the region – and perhaps also its muscles.

France's role in the Middle East

In Lebanon, after World War I a French protectorate legitimised by the League of Nations, France still retains an important influence over the economy, for example the banking and finance sector. There are still close relations between the two countries on the political and financial levels. It is no coincidence that ex-president Jacques Chirac is now spending his retirement in a Parisian building owned by the family of the Lebanese multimillionaire and ex-prime minister Rafiq Hariri, murdered in 2005.

photo: AP
New perspectives and impetus for the Middle East peace process? President Sarkozy (centre) rejoices at the Mediterranean Union summit between Ehud Olmert and Mahmud Abbas (left)

​​Syria can now expect a reward for its concession: if the USA should swing its club at Iran at the end of the Bush era, Syria will go unharmed. After all, Nicolas Sarkozy explained on Sunday, it was a "historical error" to link Syria with terrorism in Lebanon – and particularly with the Drakkar bombing of 1983, in which 258 French soldiers died. Instead, according to Sarkozy, it was Iran which was solely responsible. A broad hint to big brother Bush. Syria is playing the obedience card, even announcing it will consider "normal diplomatic relations" with Israel, if – and this is a big if – a peace agreement is signed.

Sarkozy already sees himself as the godfather of a new peace process, confirming his international role rather like Bill Clinton with the "Oslo Process" of the early 1990s.

But it remains to be seen whether the mood will stay so jovial for long. On the day of the Paris summit, Israel held military manoeuvres in the Golan Heights, occupied since 1967 and formerly Syrian, and Syria's President el-Assad sulked defiantly, visibly absent during attend Ehud Olmert's speech in Paris. But who cares about long-term prospects, Monsieur Sarkozy, when you can spend a day basking in the light of international fame?

Bernard Schmid

© 2008

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

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