BRUSSELS, July 14, 2008 (RFE/RL) -- President Nicolas Sarkozy and France, which currently holds the EU Presidency, scored a diplomatic triumph on July 13, successfully negotiating an EU summit with other Mediterranean countries.
The launch of a "Union for the Mediterranean," a revamped cooperation forum for the EU and its Mediterranean neighbors, has potential for controversy, however. Some see it as a gauntlet thrown down to the EU's eastern neighbors, others question its very point, as the EU has so far had little success in turning around the Mediterranean region.
The jury will remain out for some time on whether the Paris summit will go down in history as a one-off diplomatic coup or as the beginning of something bigger.
The "Euro-Med" summit is inarguably an accomplishment for French President Sarkozy and his incipient EU Presidency. More than 40 leaders attended the event from the EU and its Mediterranean summit, with only Libya's Muammar Qaddafi missing. This is unusual -- such summits are regularly snubbed by non-EU regional leaders.
The summit also saw what could be signs of a breakthrough in the Middle Eastern peace process. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said after meeting his Palestinian opposite number Mahmud Abbas that the two sides have "never been this close to an accord." Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, for whom the summit was a return to the Western limelight after years of recriminations over his country's record in Lebanon, said peace with Israel could be a matter of "six months to two years."
But the Middle East has seen false dawns before. The real objective of the Paris summit was to put EU cooperation with the Mediterranean region on a new footing by creating a "Union for the Mediterranean." This, however, is easier said than done.
The EU already has a cooperation framework with the region. In place since 1995, it is known as the "Barcelona process." Initially, France intended to circumvent the Barcelona process, laying out plans for a "Mediterranean Union" only involving littoral states.
This earned Sarkozy a quick rebuke from Germany, which complained about being sidelined while still expected to pay for the new venture. As a result, France was forced to open up the project to all EU members and it is now formally called the "Barcelona Process: A Union for the Mediterranean."
This is not necessarily the most auspicious title, given that the EU poured 4.6 billion euros ($7.3 billion) in common funds into the region between 2000-06 and has earmarked another 5.9 billion euros ($9.4 billion) up until 2013 to the Barcelona process -- all to very little discernible effect.
Internal, External Criticism
There also has been consternation among the EU's eastern member states and their neighbors. They already are complaining that the southern neighbors get two-thirds of the EU's European Neighborhood Policy budget. To rectify this, Poland and Sweden announced plans for an "Eastern Partnership" in June, but these are yet to be formally endorsed by the EU. But there will be no large-scale redistribution of funds away from the south toward the Eastern Partnership.
The Mediterranean project will get a new "secretariat," while no new institutions will be created for the Eastern Partnership -- in EU terms a distinct disadvantage for the latter.
Sarkozy's plans have also drawn ire from the region itself. Libya's Qaddafi, objecting to the inclusion of Northern European countries and Israel, has denounced it as an example of "neocolonial" imperialism that will only serve as a magnet for Muslim resentment and terrorist groups.
Turkey, which as an EU candidate country does not participate in the Barcelona process, has been very suspicious too, fearing the French plans are a ruse to offer it something less than full EU membership. Sarkozy has repeatedly said he does not want to see Turkey in the European Union.
In the longer term, the new Union for the Mediterranean will stand or fall with what it can deliver for its participants. The EU's desirables are clear -- it wants stability on its southern borders. For this, it needs to exact cooperation from its southern neighbors on governance, the fight against terrorism, immigration, and other related fields.
It also needs energy -- Algeria, Libya and Egypt have the largest natural-gas deposits in Africa with the exception of Nigeria. All also have copious amounts of oil. The EU is the region's dominant investor. Climate change, a "dialogue between civilizations," and economic reforms along the south coast of the Mediterranean Sea are further, more general EU concerns.
What the countries of the southern and eastern Mediterranean want is far less clear. They have a history of resenting what they see as political meddling in their internal affairs. Most of them struggle with democracy, and whatever half-hearted attempts at opening up their political systems they have undertaken have tended to result in Islamist electoral groundswells.
The EU's southern neighbors would certainly welcome more aid money, but their record in spending it has been poor. Perhaps most importantly, the region's most serious handicap remains the inability of its countries to work together. Israel's conflict with the Palestinians also hampers any moves toward regional stability.