President Nicolas Sarkozy's controversial plan for a Mediterranean Union, expected to be a cornerstone of France's looming EU presidency, is in trouble with experts saying many questions still need to be resolved.
The precursor Mediterranean Union had attracted protests
Last year French President Nicolas Sarkozy had a vision for an exclusive “Club Med,” in which membership was based solely on a shared Mediterranean coastline. This meant that only EU countries on the 27-nation bloc’s southern flank, such as France, Spain and Italy met the criteria for a geographical grouping that stretches from Morocco to Israel, Syria and Turkey.
Sarkozy’s “Mediterranean dream” was supposed to provide a forum for tackling regional issues that ranged from stopping illegal boat migration from Africa and combating terrorism to harnessing solar energy and cleaning up the polluted sea.
But there were numerous problems with the proposal, with Germany playing a key role in torpedoing Sarkozy’s original plan, say EU experts. German chancellor Angela Merkel had insisted that the initiative be anchored within existing EU structures and must include all member states.
The rift between France and Germany had become so deep over the French proposal that a bilateral mini-summit scheduled in the Bavarian town of Straubing in March was cancelled.
However on Monday, German government spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm confirmed that the meeting will take place on June 9 and focus on climate change. Sarkozy will also brief Merkel on his agenda when France assumes the EU’s rotating presidency in July.
Germany's Merkel remains wary of the Club Med plan
“France and Germany have been the driving force of European integration for decades now, so if one of them disagrees with the other’s initiative, it never becomes major EU policy,” said Hans Stark, a Franco-German expert at the Paris-based French Institute of International Relations (IFRI).
The now official “Barcelona Process: Union for the Mediterranean” is expected to be the cornerstone of the French EU presidency and will be officially launched in Paris in mid-July.
What was at issue for Germany was a violation of a basic trust between the two countries, according to Stark.
Club Med not just an EU subset
“Sarkozy went about this unilaterally without consulting Merkel,” he said, explaining that it is impossible to forge a coherent EU neighborhood policy with an exclusive subset within the EU going off in a separate direction.
Stark said the issue also applies to other regional groupings, such as the recent Polish-Swedish initiative to establish an Eastern partnership that would permit visa-free travel and create a free trade zone with former Soviet countries such as the Ukraine and Georgia.
“The potential danger is that a small group of member countries pursue their own narrow interests at the expense of the EU as a whole, creating a North-South divide that could split Europe into two,” he said.
Clara Marina O’Donnell, a research fellow on EU neighborhood policy and the Middle East at the Centre for European Reform (CER) in London, said, however, that the key issue is not whether the entire EU or only a sub-group of countries is involved in negotiations with its southern neighbors.
Sharing a coastline does not bind countries
Mediterranean countries do not see themselves as one entity
“The question is how effective the Europeans are in addressing conflicts in the region. There are plenty of obstacles in making a Mediterranean partnership work, because Israel, the Arab states, Turkey and the Maghreb countries in northern Africa are so diverse,“ she said.
“They don’t see themselves as one entity,” she said.
According to a European Commission plan outlined last week, two parallel sets of EU and non-EU presidencies would be established for six months on a rotating basis.
“On the non-EU side, what would happen if the presidency is held by a country such as Syria that is hostile to Israel?” asked O’Donnell.
Still O’Donnell viewed the Mediterranean Union as slightly different from the stalled Barcelona process launched in 1995, a Euro-Mediterranean partnership, and the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) that followed in 2004 after EU enlargement pushed the frontiers further east.
Re-focusing Barcelona Process
“It could revitalize Barcelona with a shift in focus,” she said, explaining that Barcelona was more about achieving political and democratic reforms in the region, whereas the new entity focuses on more concrete goals such as tackling the problem of illegal immigration and pushing for a Euro-Mediterranean free trade zone by 2010.
Free trade and freedom of movement for the Maghreb and Middle East countries are intertwined, according to Stark.
The plan focuses on concrete goals like curbing illegal immigration
“We can’t have free trade and stop migration. What non-EU countries want is liberalization of the visa system for example. As Romano Prodi (former President of the European Commission) once said ‘the EU-Mediterranean should share in everything but our institutions’,” he said.
Except for Turkey, which is keen to join the EU, most of the other Mediterranean countries simply want greater access to Europe, he said.
Keeping Turkey out of the EU
O’Donnell said that offering Turkey the alternative of a closer Mediterranean partnership was supposed to discourage the mainly Muslim country from joining the EU.
“That was one of the main motivations behind Sarkozy’s original initiative -- to keep Turkey out of the EU,” she said.
Ankara has made clear that it sees no alternative to its goal of EU membership, and its foreign minister Ali Babacan told the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet this week that Turkey has not yet made a decision about joining the new union.
“Assessments are underway. We should clearly see what this Union for Mediterranean is all about,” said Babacan.
O’Donnell agrees that the whole Mediterranean concept was unclear from the outset. “The EU has this habit of adding a new layer of bureaucracy every five years or so,” she said.
“Depending on how this Union evolves, it has the potential to tackle some big issues,” she added.
But it's unclear whether France's enthusiasm for the project will be shared by other EU members.
“What happens at the start of next year when France no longer holds the EU presidency, and the Czechs take over? They’d surely want to focus on Eastern Europe. The Mediterranean Union is Sarkozy’s baby, but not everyone else’s,” O' Donnell added.