This is not a Union – but Union of the Med May Have Potential

So a new Club Med is born! More than 40 presidents and/or prime ministers turned up in Paris on July 13 for the launch of the Union for the Mediterranean. It was a welcome diplomatic triumph for President Sarkozy, embattled as he is by a disillusioned and critical French public opinion.

When asked many years ago what was the collective term for a gathering of political leaders, British Prime Minister Callaghan suggested it was a “Lack of Principals”, and of course everybody is highly sceptical about the purpose and the prospects of the new body. It embraces all 27 member countries of the EU, the Balkans, the countries of the Maghreb and the Middle Eastern countries bordering the Mediterranean – 44 states in all including the Palestinian Authority. There are a few conflicting interests among that lot!

I must declare some sympathy with Colonel Gadhafi of Libya, who refused the invitation to Paris and gave a speech explaining why. It was the word Union which really got to him, given his lifelong experience in striving to create unions which failed, between Arabs, the Africans, the Maghreb countries, Libya and Egypt, Libya and Tunisia etc etc.

For example, he said, how could one possibly envisage a union between the countries of North Africa and those in Scandinavia “where it is common to see people walk around naked”. Quite so. It’s those Danish summer beaches!

Let’s agree with the Libyan leader that this is not a Union. But that doesn’t mean that it has no potential value. When Sarkozy originally floated the idea following his election it had the marks of a personal ego trip. He saw its membership confined to countries bordering the Med, quite firmly under French leadership, albeit with some financial support from the EU budget and widely perceived as a half-way house for Turkey in place of EU membership.

This formulation was well calculated to upset the Germans and everyone else, which it duly did, but with the help of Angela Merkel, Sarkozy’s brainwave has been transformed into a full-fledged EU initiative under the Barcelona process. See Stanley Crossick’s blog.

The Paris launch seemed to have a far more substantial political dimension than the Barcelona meetings ever did, so maybe the organisation can provide a valuable new forum for engagement between Europe and its neighbours and between the neighbours themselves. It is certainly conceived as a more balanced relationship, with a joint presidency and a secretariat outside the EU.

Europe needs to find traction for its role in advancing peace in the Middle East and the Paris meeting was notable for constructive comments made by the Israeli prime minister and the Syrian leader – see Mark Mardell’s blog – although a commitment to deal with weapons of mass destruction in the region had rather a hollow ring. If the new Union could really tackle problems of that scale it would be something special indeed.

But let’s look at some of the more practical long-term aims, which could offer major benefits to the region, such as cleaning up the Med, managing water resources (which is one of the conflict triggers in the Middle East), developing solar energy capabilities, improving transport links and tackling natural disasters. Really effective action in these areas could be a major contribution to the wellbeing of the region as a whole – and an experience in working together.

One issue of fundamental importance to the non-EU participants is better access for their food exports to European markets, but I saw no mention of that in the communiqué or reports of the Paris meeting. Given Mr Sarkozy’s attacks on Commissioner Mandelson for his stance on Doha it looks like deliberate avoidance, yet must surely be a fundamental element in helping to build the economies of our southern neighbours.

As the Doha Round reaches its climax (or anti-climax) perhaps this issue will be decided in another forum.

The immediate challenge is to decide where the secretariat is to be based, with the aim of having a fully operational organisation by the end of 2008. Let’s hope some of the high-flown rhetoric can be translated into tangible results and above all that the Union of the Mediterranean will provide a mechanism for the EU to make a substantive contribution to peace in the Middle East.