Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2007 > July 07, 2007 > Sarkozy’s ‘Mediterranean Union’: What Does It Mean?

Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 29

Sarkozy’s ‘Mediterranean Union’: What Does It Mean?

Saturday 7 July 2007, by Sujata Ashwarya Cheema

Introduction

A proposal by the new French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, for setting up a Union of Mediterranean Rim Countries has struck both right and wrong notes at the same time. This initiative was raised by Sarkozy in a campaign speech in February, and was reiterated in his electoral victory address. Such a proposed Union would gather sixteen countries with varied political and economic systems—from the European, West Asian, and North African region of the Mediterranean rim area—into an economic community focusing on such policy issues as trade, immigration, and security and energy, along the lines of the European Economic Community. The new French leader has also suggested that the countries ringing the Mediterranean—Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Malta, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco—should form an European Union (EU)-like Council with a rotating presidency and has identified Turkey to be the backbone of this grouping. Initial reactions to this proposal have ranged from enthusiasm in Spain, Portugal, and Italy to cautious approval in Israel and a total outrage in Turkey, which perceives the proposal as a ploy to keep it out of the EU.

The idea of Mediterranean cooperation is not new. Sarkozy’s Mediterranean Union (MU) plan can be seen as an extension of the EU’s Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP), which was launched in Barcelona, Spain, in 1995 to bring 12 Mediterranean countries—including the Palestinian Authority and Israel—into a free-trade zone by 2010. (Two of those countries, Cyprus and Malta, joined the EU in 2004.) That ambitious effort by the EU, which has been led by France, Italy and Spain, created bilateral trade accords with several Arab countries and pressed them to encourage free trade in West Asia. Significantly, the EMP has become the only forum of its kind to have Israel and the Arab countries sitting around the same table. Where Sarkozy’s proposal is different is that whereas the Barcelona initiative involved the entire EU, his plan involves only the countries with an immediate coastline and an interest in closer cooperation. The MU would work closely with the EU and might eventually form joint institutions with the 27-nation bloc.

Contentious Political Issues

EVEN though the focus of the Mediterranean Union is primarily economic, it would necessarily involve the member countries into discussions on controversial issues such as illegal immigration to Europe via North Africa, the intractable problem of peace in West Asia, and Turkish membership in the EU. Sarkozy hopes that the new Mediterranean grouping would create mechanisms to control illegal immigration from North Africa into France and other southern European countries. The Maghreb is also an important transit route for illegal immigrants from West Asia heading towards Europe. Further, the site is a spring-well of resurgent Islamic militancy and home to substantial natural gas reserves. A vibrant trade and economic development of the region would bring prosperity in the area, which could contribute to the decline of immigration to Europe, it is hoped. Such a result can only be expected as a long-term consequence of the Union, given that it would require the creation of 30 million jobs in the next ten years, if the current levels of employment are to be maintained in the southern side of the Mediterranean. John Kornblum, a former US ambassador to Germany, likened the proposed MU to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between 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 his doubt whether the governments with diverse political systems in the Maghreb would come to an agreement on this politically-charged issue.

With Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Israel and, hopefully, the Palestinians in the organisation, the EU countries would be forced to involve themselves in the conflicts of the West Asian region. It would bring Israel and its Arab neighbours into a new assembly that Sarkozy apparently hopes could tackle the problem of peace. At the same time, the new French President, who has stressed his friendship with the Jewish state, wants France and the EU to play a more activist diplomatic role in dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict through the MU forum. Sarkozy has advocated the idea of modifying France’s ‘Arabist’ foreign policy and Europe’s ‘pro-Arab’ tilt, to enable the EU to play the role of a mediator between Arabs and Israelis. For the EU member-states, West Asia is their ‘strategic backyard’ with which they maintain strategic, business, and demographic ties and which has become violence-ridden and highly unstable in recent years. Sarkozy believes that by improving relations with Israel and by adopting a strategy of constructive engagement in West Asia through the MU, France and the EU, with the help of diplomatic and economic resources, could advance the cause of peace and political and economic reform.

Sarkozy, who campaigned on a platform of keeping Turkey out of the EU, maintaining that the large Muslim nation is part of Asia Minor, not Europe, would like to provide Ankara with an alternative route to partnership with Europe as a pillar of the new MU. Ankara began EU entry talks in October 2005, but those talks are now on a slow track after Turkey refused last year to implement a customs union pact with EU member Cyprus, which Ankara does not recognise. Turkey’s bid for EU membership has been contentious from the outset and remains so, with the human rights issue being a particular concern with European countries. The present strains between Turkey’s pro-secular military and the Islamic-rooted government have prompted the EU to warn Turkey to reduce the political influence of the Army and respect state institutions. Sarkozy’s stance on Turkey runs against a majority of EU leaders who back the two-year-old entry negotiations with Ankara. He has indicated he will push for a definition of the bloc’s ‘stable’ borders and a re-orientation of talks with the sizeable and relatively poor Muslim country. Many analysts feel that for many reasons the MU could be beneficial for Turkey in the same way the NAFTA has been for Mexico. It would help accelerate trade and investment ties and open the road for more diplomatic and military coordination between Turkey and the EU.

Reaction of Parties to MU Proposal

MAJOR European countries have supported the idea of a Mediterranean Union. The Ambassador at large for Mediterranean Affairs, Juan Prat, of Spain praised the proposal as a way to deal more effectively with new risks like immigration, terrorism and climate change. Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, who met Sarkozy in the last week of May in Paris, insisted the idea of a Union of Mediterranean Countries, modelled on, but not part of, the EU, was “necessary”. Portugal’s Foreign Minister Luis Amado, while outlining his government’s plans during the country’s presidency of the European Union in the second half of this year, said Lisbon wanted to use its six months at the helm boosting ties with Africa and the Mediterranean. He also said that Europe needed to build ties with Arab nations and the wider Muslim world “to avoid an escalation of mistrust and resentment”. He asserted that the EU should show the same determination to reach out to its southern flank, as it did when nurturing democracy and stability in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism.

In West Asia, Israel’s reaction has been positive. Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres called the idea of a Mediterranean Union “very important”, when he telephoned to congratulate Sarkozy on his victory and said that he was interested in discussing it further. Israel is naturally interested in the proposal, as it would give her another forum to have a dialogue with Arab countries, which still do not recognise her. Turkey has strongly criticised the proposal, urging the French leader to respect the commitments of the past, that is, the accession negotiations with the European Union started on the basis of the EU decision which was taken unanimously, including France. Turkey has made it clear that it would never accept the MU as an alternative to its EU membership bid. The Foreign Minister of Turkey, Abdullah Gul, has said that Turkey considered cooperation in the Mediterranean and cooperation in the EU as two separate issues.

Conclusion

THE Medierranean Union, as proposed by Sarkozy, has great potential for building cooperation among the three regions it seeks to incorporate. North Africa’s problem could have better hearing in the corridors of Brussels and the Europeans would be encouraged to deal with the problems of West Asia, especially in the Lebanese and Israeli-Palestinian arenas. Growing involvement by France and the EU in resolving the conflicts in the Levant, which could require the deployment of European troops to help secure future peace accords, might make it possible for the United States to consider reducing its military presence in the region, at present the foremost source of resentment on the ‘Arab street’. To begin with, freer trade among the participant countries could engender cooperation and decrease instability. Even with no hurdles, a vibrant MU, on the lines of the EU, is still a long way off. Yet a successful MU would amply demonstrate that the EU is not a structural amomaly, but rather a blueprint to be followed even by other parts of the world. The Mediterranean has long acted as a barrier separating continents; it could well act as an interface bringing them together into mutually beneficial relationship.

The author is a Lecturer at the Centre for West Asian Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia; currently she is a post-doctoral Fellow at the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, Paris.

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