By Patrick Seale, Special to Gulf News
There is no doubt that French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s grandiose plan of a Union for the Mediterranean has run into serious trouble. Launched with a flourish of trumpets in Paris last July 13, in front of an audience of 43 heads of state, it has stumbled on persistent political problems.
Of these problems, none is more obstructive than the smouldering Arab-Israeli conflict which burst into flames in December-January when Israel launched its all-out assault on Gaza.
This war caused Egypt to call for a formal suspension of all meetings to do with the Union for the Mediterranean. None has been held since late December. For the moment at least, the Arab world wants nothing to do with Israel. The Union project is frozen and will no doubt remain so, unless Arab heads of state, meeting at a summit in Qatar at the end of this month, decide to revive it.
But Sarkozy is far from giving up. The Union project is central to his global diplomacy. His slogan is that ‘the future of Europe lies in the South’. Last weekend, two high-level envoys from the Elysée Palace travelled to Monte Carlo with the message that, in spite of undoubted setbacks, the Union for the Mediterranean is alive and well.
The audience which Sarkozy’s envoys addressed was the Club de Monaco, a prestigious gathering of international statesmen and thinkers, which meets once a year to discuss Mediterranean problems under the presidency of Boutros Boutros-Ghali, a former UN secretary-general, and of Claude de Kémoularia, a former French ambassador and banker. The charismatic and irrepressible Kémoularia has, over the past nine years, made the Club into an independent and influential debating forum.
Nevertheless, Egypt’s move in calling for a freeze of all Mediterranean Union meetings is significant. Even though President Hosni Mubarak is a co-president with Sarkozy of the Union project, and even though Egypt is itself at peace with Israel, Mubarak clearly felt that he had no option but to bow to Egyptian, and indeed Arab, public opinion, enraged by Israel’s destructive war on Gaza.
The Mediterranean Union project is one more victim of Israel’s savage and profoundly misguided militarism, which achieved nothing except to destroy Gaza and arouse furious hatred of the Jewish state.
Another, lesser but significant, political obstacle to the Mediterranean Union project is the dispute between Algeria and Morocco over the Western Sahara. It has turned the goal of an Arab Maghreb Union into an empty shell. The border between the two North African heavy-weights remains closed. Unless they make it up, there can be no serious talk of joint Mediterranean projects. Christopher Ross, a UN envoy (and fluent Arabist), is attempting to edge them towards a compromise, but it remains uphill work.
As is well-known, Sarkozy’s Union for the Mediterranean is a re-launch of the ill-fated Barcelona process, which foundered because it was seen as the North dictating terms to the South. When it was launched in 1995, Barcelona’s unspoken agenda was to protect Europe from Middle Eastern terrorism, as well as from unwelcome migration from the South, while protecting Europe’s agriculture from competition.
This time, the philosophy is more widely acceptable. It is that the North and the South should work together on a basis of full equality in order to implement specific projects of vital interest to both, particularly at a time of potentially catastrophic climate change. World financial upheaval has added urgency to the need for cooperative action. The projects being discussed include developing solar power and other sources of renewable energy; promoting sustainable development; cleaning up the highly-polluted Mediterranean sea; protecting underwater resources; establishing maritime routes; promoting higher education and scientific research; building high-tech industrial parks; above all, identifying specific projects, country-by-country, and raising funds, both public and private, to implement them.
Before the suspension in late December, regular meetings of experts took place and some progress was undoubtedly made. Preparations are underway for an important ministerial conference on sustainable development due to be held in Monaco in early June. A Secretariat of the Union for the Mediterranean is due to be installed in Barcelona – although its head has not yet been chosen.
A summit meeting of heads of state of the Mediterranean Union will be held in the first six months of 2010, during the Spanish presidency of the EU. It is generally agreed that the next 18 months will be crucial for the future of Sarkozy’s dream.
The trouble is that the French President’s project-by-project philosophy has aroused controversy. Some see it as a purely French project, aimed at promoting French interests and objectives. As evidence, they point to foot-dragging on the part of some European states.
Arabs tend to see the Union as a ruse to promote normalisation with Israel, without Israel making any political concessions. They would prefer a partnership between the European Union and the Arab world, leaving Israel to one side until it agrees to make peace.
Several North African countries – Libya, Algeria, Morocco – criticise the proposed Union for the Mediterranean in bitter terms, and seem to expect little from it. They want freer entry into Europe for their citizens – which they will not get – as well as a realistic expectation of rising living standards, so as to close the yawning gap in per capita incomes between the northern and southern shores of the Mediterranean. But the gap in incomes is too wide – something like one to ten – to be easily narrowed. This North-South frontier is one of the most unequal in the world.
On the non-European side of the Mediterranean, the concern among leaders and among elites is that Sarkozy’s Union will have little or no impact on the actual lives of people in the South.
One weakness of the Mediterranean Union project is that it makes no mention of sub-Saharan Africa, although it is from there that many migrants originate, as they travel through North Africa on their way to Europe. Many die on the way.
Unless there is a real American-led effort this year to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, and unless some economic projects show early benefits for ordinary people, the danger is that Sarkozy’s Union for the Mediterranean will remain a dream. Perhaps the biggest obstacle it faces is a prevailing sense of hopelessness – the despair of populations crippled by poverty, oppressed by tyranny, or shattered by bombs, as in Gaza.
Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs.