Anke Hagedorn ponders the significance of the new Mediterranean Union launched in Paris at the weekend by leaders of 43 nations from Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.
The Mediterranean summit that took place in Paris last weekend was a grand affair. Held in the Grand Palais, a gigantic glass and steel exhibition hall built for the 1900 World's Fair, the conference was attended by the EU's 27 leaders as well as heads of states from the 16 nations on the southern and eastern rims of the Mediterranean. Many of them had never shared a table before -- so French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who initiated the event, had much to be proud of it even before the first agreement had been reached.
Things went from good to even better, with the summit producing a series of diplomatic breakthroughs: From cleaning up the Mediterranean and regulating shipping to expanding use of solar energy in southern Europe. Even new university exchange programms were discussed. And clearly, Sarkozy will have been hoping that by boosting ties with the partipating countries he will also help contain the ongoing flood of illegal immigrants into France.
The French president had already outlined his plans for "Club Med" during his election campaign last year. But despite the success of last weekend's conference, little remains of his original vision. And that was mainly due to German Chancellor Angela Merkel who managed to push through her demand that the new Union exist only within the framework of existing EU structures. This means that the talks in Paris were ultimately geared solely to integrating Sarkozy's proposals into the EU Mediterranean association launched in Barcelona in 1995 as a way of reviving the original plan. This must have been a humiliating blow to the ambitious French leader.
But he soon found a new way of imbuing the conference with political significance, using it to kickstart the Middle East peace process. Even before the actual meeting, he got together with Syrian President Baschar El Assad as well the new Lebanese President Michel Suleiman. The two of them announced after the summit that they planned to open embassies in their respective countries, for the first time since independence in the 1940s.
Then, on Sunday, Sarkozy got to appear between the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert and the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, with the former announcing that Israel had never been so close to a peace agreement with the Palestinians as it was that day.
Sarkozy also took the opportunity to spell out that with France currently holding the EU's rotating presidency, he had every intention of boosting the bloc's role in the Middle East peace process
All in all, there was good will to spare at the Paris summit. Now it just remains to be seen how much of it translates into action. If the meeting ends up failing to bear fruit, it certainly wouldn't be the first time that political promises weren't kept.
Anke Hagedorn covered the French presidential elections for DW-RADIO in 2007 (jp)