Global Policy Forum

Sarkozy's Proposal for Mediterranean Bloc Makes Waves


By Katrin Bennhold

International Herald Tribune
May 10, 2007

A proposal by Nicolas Sarkozy to gather the European, Middle Eastern, and North African countries of the strategic Mediterranean rim into an economic community along the lines of the early European Union has begun making waves even before the president-elect takes office. The initiative, outlined by Sarkozy in a campaign speech in February, went largely unnoticed until he repeated it in his electoral victory address Sunday evening. Plans are still being drawn up, Sarkozy's aides said Thursday, but even at this early stage the proposal has cascading implications for the region.

Such a union, even if primarily economic, would necessarily involve the member countries in discussions of controversial issues like Turkish membership in the European Union and illegal immigration via North Africa. It would bring Israel and its Arab neighbors into a new assembly that Sarkozy apparently hopes could tackle the intractable problem of Middle East peace.

Initial reactions have ranged from enthusiasm in Spain to cautious approval in Israel to outrage in Turkey, which sees the proposal as a ploy to keep it out of the European Union. "This cannot be an alternative to Turkish membership in the EU," Egeman Bagis, the chief foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, said in a telephone interview.

"Every country that started membership negotiations with the EU has completed them," he continued. "If Turkey becomes the only exception, it would send a very bad message to the world's 1.5 billion Muslims." The "Turkish problem" is clearly in Sarkozy's sights. He campaigned on a platform of keeping Turkey out of the EU, maintaining that the large Muslim nation is part of Asia Minor, not Europe.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is also on Sarkozy's mind. In his speech Sunday, he described the Mediterranean as the region "where everything is being played out." He added: "We must surmount all the hatreds to make space for a great dream of peace and civilization." The notion of regional cooperation in the Mediterranean is ambitious but more timely than ever, diplomats and foreign policy observers said. North Africa is an important transit route for illegal immigrants heading for Europe. The site of resurgent Islamic terrorism, it is home to substantial natural gas reserves.

Sarkozy, who takes office next week, has said that he wants the countries ringing the Mediterranean - Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Malta, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco - to form a council and hold regular summit meetings under a rotating presidency.

He wants to anchor regional cooperation in the fields of energy, security, counter-terrorism and immigration on a trade agreement, and create a Mediterranean Investment Bank, modeled on the European Investment Bank, that would help develop the economies on the eastern and southern edge of the region. He has offered French expertise on nuclear energy in return for access to North Africa's gas reserves.

"The time has come to build together a Mediterranean Union that will be the bridge between Europe and Africa," Sarkozy said in his victory speech Sunday. In a campaign speech in the port city of Toulon in February, he said: "The Mediterranean is a key to our influence in the world. It's also a key for Islam that is torn between modernity and fundamentalism."

A Mediterranean Union would work closely with the European Union and might eventually form joint institutions with the 27-nation bloc. But it would be a separate organization, Sarkozy said in the Toulon speech. In Spain, Juan Prat, ambassador at large for Mediterranean affairs, praised the proposal as a way to deal more effectively with new risks like immigration, terrorism and climate change. "We are ready to work with him on this because we need to enhance the European-Mediterranean partnership," he said in a telephone interview.

In Israel, where Sarkozy's Toulon speech was circulated in diplomatic circles, the reaction was also positive. When Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres called Sarkozy on Monday to congratulate him on his election victory, he said that the idea of a Mediterranean Union was "very important" and that he was interested in discussing it further, diplomatic sources said.

A senior Israeli diplomat, who declined to be identified, said: "My feeling is that there is every reason to believe that Israel would be interested in this because it gives us another opportunity to have a dialogue with countries that we sometimes have difficulties holding a dialogue with."

The idea of a Mediterranean dialogue is not new. In 1995, the European Union launched the so-called Barcelona process, a framework for regular meetings among the union's members and other countries ringing the Mediterranean. But where most past initiatives were ineffective - and where Sarkozy's proposal is different - is that they involved all of the EU. His plan involves only the countries with an immediate coastline and interest in closer cooperation.

As one French diplomat put it: "Germany cares about the east, we care about the south. That should not stop either of us from taking targeted initiatives." International affairs experts applauded the initiative as a sound strategy but expressed skepticism about its feasibility in the near future. "When I saw his proposal my eyes perked up. I think it is a good idea," said John Kornblum, a former U.S. ambassador to Germany who viewed the proposal mainly as an effort to curb illegal immigration and likened it to the North American Free Trade Agreement among the United States, Canada and Mexico. "It's a little bit like Nafta: better to give them jobs where they are rather than having them come across the border." But Kornblum also expressed skepticism about striking a collective agreement with Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya, a volatile Algerian government and Morocco's monarchy. "The EU is based on civilized, democratic governments," he said, "and it still took a lot of time."

A former French foreign minister, Michel Barnier, one of Sarkozy's campaign advisers, said the first step would be to build the foundations for a common market that is "parallel to and coordinated with" the European Union's single market. "Nicolas Sarkozy sees this region as containing a lot of risks," Barnier said. "Building economic links could help avoid conflicts." The genius of the EU's founders "was to give countries that had a history of fighting each other an incentive for peace," Barnier said. "The deeper your economic integration, the greater your interest not to start a war."

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