Is the “Mediterranean Union” suffering from amnesia?



Is the “Mediterranean Union” suffering from amnesia?It is now sadly obvious that the Barcelona Euro-Mediterranean project started in 1995, has failed. Europe and the countries on the South shore of the Mediterranean have trouble in finding coherent and efficient frameworks of discussion. Since September 11, the instability in the Middle East and the scepticism regarding Europe’s political role in the international scene – particularly as to its relationship with the United States – don’t allow for honest dialogue. Turkey’s latest elections and its decision to intervene in Kurdistan, divide the European Members. Within this context, Nicolas Sarkozy, the advocate of the fight against immigration and of the refusal of Turkey’s entry in the European Union, has recently reiterated - during his official visit in Morocco – his wish to launch a “Mediterranean Union”. But can this Union, torn between amnesia and soft focus, be taken seriously?

Diplomatic amnesia?
Bearing in mind that the European Union has set aside Mediterranean dialogue since its expansion to the East, re-launching a new initiative of this kind would certainly be useful. However, in the style of Sarkozy, this Union, which was introduced as an absolute innovation since his electoral campaign, doesn’t really seem convincing. In its vagueness, it is both elusive and consensual and adds nothing new if compared to the Barcelona project.

The vocabulary borrows from the lexicon of the European Union: France’s president proposes to organise a Union based “on four pillars: environment, dialogue between cultures, economic growth and security”. The initiative is defined as a “common project belonging to all those who are interested in the future of the Mediterranean”. Although some institutions have already been mentioned, as is the case of a Mediterranean investment bank or of a Mediterranean University, no further elements allow for a sound judgement.

Yet, the Barcelona failures should have enlightened France. This was particularly evident in the case of the Mediterranean Culture Workshop, launched by President Chirac shortly before the term of his mandate. This project failed to analyse the previous Euro-Mediterranean cultural initiatives and proceeded as if struck by amnesia. In fact, although France refers to the setbacks and shortcomings of the Barcelona process, in this case it has never considered the main reasons of this failure under a critical perspective. Following this course, Sarkozy’s boastful declarations may well lead to fear that such errors can be repeated.

From a political perspective, the Barcelona process has basically failed in its aim to foster dialogue between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Europe’s image as a main actor of the international scene has strongly been undermined by the impossibility to mediate the conflict between Israel and Palestine, despite the fact that the EU was the main donor of the peace process.

Today, Turkey’s entry into Europe could represent the second pitfall for the Mediterranean Union. If the French Head of State stands for a break in “France’s past Arab policy”, to most observers, the Mediterranean Union could represent a new obsession of France’s foreign policy and a means to prevent Turkey’s entry within the European Community.

Last but not least, as for ten years ago in Barcelona, the creation of a partnership which should turn a blind eye on issues pertaining to democracy and human rights has not been reconsidered. Alongside the Euromed summit in Luxembourg, the platform of Euro-Mediterranean NGOs stated in its final declaration that: “In the world, the South and East regions of the Mediterranean are the most affected by a deep crisis in terms of democratisation, fundamental rights and human rights, upsetting several societies (…) The participants assert that the implementation of the objectives of the Euro-Mediterranean Cooperation and of the European Neighbourhood Policy requires concrete action to promote political reforms, both in Southern and Northern States”. During his visit to Morocco, the French President obviously did not mention any of these obstacles. However, the various civil forums organised alongside the diplomatic meetings of the Euro-Med partnership have reiterated these issues too often to be ignored.

The issues of the Mediterranean Union and of the Western Sahara were the most tackled in the comments of the Moroccan press during Sarkozy’s visit. The reactions mainly revolve around a hardly concealed scepticism.

An empty shell
Whereas Aujourd’hui le Maroc, defers its opinion pending a more accurate explanation of what “this famous and still mysterious Mediterranean Union” might be, the Nouvelle tribune du Maroc spells out the question of its feasibility more clearly: “Is this project really a chimera? It first raises a feeling of polite scepticism on the shores of the Maghreb torn by its rivalries and alas, with no perspectives of improvement. At present it’s like an empty shell, an abstract concept despite the fact it should take shape during the second semester of 2008, before the French Presidency of the European Union”. The Moroccan daily adds that the lack of political will within the selfsame French policy is blatant: “The French Presidency has just suffered two subsequent setbacks. In these last weeks, Michel Rocard and Alain Juppé have both turned down a mission aimed at exploring links to establish a relationship between Europe and the countries surrounding the Mediterranean”.

Funding the initiative
The feasibility of this ambitious Union also rests on a financial commitment which its members will kindly agree to grant. This is one of the main weaknesses underlined by the International Herald Tribune: “One idea would be a tax on tourism in member countries, but that is unpopular in many of the poorer southern countries, the diplomat said. Another source could be EU funds earmarked for its neighborhood policy. But few countries in northern Europe want to bankroll a project that some perceive mainly as a vehicle for France's president to stake out a leadership role and pursue his country's own commercial and strategic interests -”. In fact, during his visit to Morocco, President Sarkozy also sealed civil and military contracts with Morocco amounting to 3 billion Euros.

A concealed bilateralism?
The funding issue is intrinsically tied to the fact that France seems to go it alone on its proposal. Cristophe Ayad, special correspondent of Libération in Morocco doesn’t perceive any positive reactions from the part of France’s European partners: “In the North, Spain doesn’t intend to tag along France. Without mentioning London and Berlin, which are not keen on financing Paris’ regained “grandeur” in the Mediterranean”. The political scientist Olivier Roy also understands that this initiative was not previously agreed with the European Partners. He deems the European Union “an efficient means for France to pursue its bilateral interests, which will not however solve the region’s problems”.

The first reference to the “Mediterranean Union” was made on last 6 May, the day of the inauguration of Nicolas Sarkozy as President of the French Republic. On this occasion, Sarkozy declared that the time had come to “jointly build a Mediterranean Union which would draw Africa and Europe together”, thus turning the Union into one of the objectives of his mandate.

Six months later, his visit to Morocco and the soft focus of his proposal haven’t met the expected enthusiasm from the part of his partners, neither of the South nor of the North.

In the meantime, the areas of conflict keep increasing in the Mediterranean, the death tolls linked to illegal immigration on the European shores rise day by day, the Palestinian issue has rarely been so dreary and helpless. The Mediterranean deserves more than hazy declarations or promises that have been already pledged, disguised as novelty.



Catherine Cornet

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