Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 June 2008
Issue No. 902
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Ayman El-Amir

Strange bedfellows

U-Med faces the same obstacles as the Barcelona process and has no clearer idea how to circumvent them, writes Ayman El-Amir*

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France has invited south Mediterranean presidents and heads of state to a summit in mid-July to shore up support for the much- criticised Union of the Mediterranean initiative, recently renamed the Union for the Mediterranean in an attempt to allay the fears of some of France's European allies and contain the criticisms of potential partners from the south Mediterranean, led by rebellious Libya. Other coastal states, including Spain and Italy, are wary that the new union will undermine the Euro- Mediterranean Partnership launched by the Barcelona process some 13 years ago. Seeking a higher profile role in Europe and regional leadership of the Mediterranean may be a legitimate quest for Sarkozy but if he wants to confront serious challenges and win accolades there is the festering Palestinian-Israeli conflict to confront head on.

Reviewing the Barcelona process, with its complex structures, institutions, councils, bodies of experts and endless meetings, must have been frustrating for Sarkozy. For all its facilities and funding the partnership has proved too cumbersome and incoherent to produce any significant achievements in its 13-year life span. It has made little progress towards making the Mediterranean an oasis of stability and common prosperity, leading Sarkozy and his policy-makers to broach a new concept in the first year of his presidency and to mark the beginning of France's presidency of the European Union in July.

Sarkozy's Union for the Mediterranean (U-Med) faces such daunting challenges that the initiative, and the aspiration driving it, could easily be rendered stillborn. The initiative is poorly-defined and perhaps too hasty to achieve the strategic goals it seeks. It has provoked negative reactions, ranging from outright rejection, initially by so important an ally as Germany, to reservations and apprehension from Spain, Italy and Turkey, which did not want the U-Med to undercut the wider and more inclusive Barcelona process. Ankara harboured legitimate misgivings that membership of the U-Med was being offered as an alternative to full membership in the European Union, while several of France's European partners in the Barcelona process suspected that Paris was seeking to assume exclusive leadership of the coastal states of the southern Mediterranean in an attempt to shore up its role at the heart of the EU.

France's supposed south Mediterranean partners were taken by surprise and are hardly in a harmonious mood. Egypt warmly welcomed the offer of joint leadership of the new initiative while Libya, which convened a mini-summit of the leaders of Tunisia, Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco and Syria, sent negative signals about the proposal and did not even issue a statement about the outcome of the meeting. Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi even castigated the initiative, denouncing European countries for treating the developing countries of the Mediterranean as beggars "who deserve only some bread-crumbs". Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is reported to have cancelled his participation in the meeting to avoid encountering Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad because of the political differences between the two countries over Syria's policy in Lebanon and its support of Hizbullah and Hamas.

Arab states will have as much difficulty with the U- Med as they had with the Euro-Med Partnership of the Barcelona process. This is a reflection of both regional conflict and inter-Arab disputes. Under the umbrella of the Barcelona process Arab partners, including Egypt and Jordan, which have formal peace treaties with Israel, were reluctant to engage in any activity that could be interpreted as normalisation of relations with the Jewish while it continues to occupy Palestinian and Syrian territories. The bloody conflict between Israel and Palestine, two partners in the Barcelona Process, made progress on the political front unattainable. The Anglo-American invasion of Iraq had serious ramifications for the entire Middle East region, negatively affecting Euro-Med cooperation. Washington's division of Iraq along Shia-Sunni- Kurdish lines and the involvement of Iran spread its consequences to the eastern Mediterranean, as did the sectarian conflict in Lebanon and the Palestinian- Israeli war. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan oppose Syria's policy in Lebanon and its support of Hizbullah which fought a pitched battle with Israel in 2006. Here are four Euro-Mediterranean partnership members at odds with each other. These contradictions are bound to cast their shadow over President Sarkozy's inchoate U-Med project.

There are still more lessons to be learned from the Barcelona process. A major one is the incompatibility between the north and south Mediterranean when it comes to civil and political rights, individual freedoms, democratic, free and fair elections, independence of different branches of government and freedom of the press. For both sides these will remain a bridge too far. In a paper prepared for the Centre for European Policy Studies Michael Emerson wrote: "The South Mediterranean has not at all been a region of failed states, but has become rather one of smarter authoritarianism, co-opting elites with business interests, allowing some token political pluralism while repressing any potentially serious opposition movement. A recent report argues that Arab regimes have become proficient at containing and disarming democracy promotion."

Since the election of President Sarkozy France has garnered little if any credentials in Middle East affairs to grant it a leadership position. Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner spent months in the second half of 2007 grass-hopping all over the Middle East to resolve the Lebanese political crisis and eventually left empty- handed. Yet President Sarkozy made sure he was the first Western head of state to visit this important former French colony and pivotal strategic centre after the resolution of the Lebanese presidential crisis, as if to canonise the newly-elected President Michel Suleiman. He did not do so well when he visited Algeria in July 2007. He offended Algerians by declining to apologise for the atrocities committed by colonial France during its 130-year-long occupation. Algeria lost more than one million people during its war of liberation against France. And the bloody Palestinian- Israeli conflict is regarded as the exclusive preserve of the United States, where no European intervention is allowed except for cosmetic reasons or to pressure the Palestinians. The EU does provide financial assistance, but only via the Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas. They have spurned Palestinians incarcerated in Gaza and murdered at will by Israel. Washington says they consist mainly of terrorists and its European allies fall in line.

Of all the major challenges the Euro-Mediterranean partnership has had to confront over 13 years only the questions of terrorism and illegal immigration elicited modest cooperation. The integration of Israel into the partnership, the spread of democracy and human rights, coastal Arab states' quest for development, the transfer of technology and an even-handed approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict have all failed. The entry of Iran, a non-coastal, non-Mediterranean power, has further complicated the process.

The major and enduring challenge President Sarkozy and his 27 European Union partners face is to coin an effective and independent foreign policy that does not dovetail with Washington. It is Europe's 50-year-old dream, and has been around since the creation of the European Economic Community. Should President Sarkozy's timid overtures to Syria prove to be a step in that direction then he could go down in history as the only leader since Charles de Gaulle to question the trans-Atlantic alliance in the overall interest of Europe.

* The writer is former Al-Ahram correspondent in Washington, DC. He also served as director of United Nations Radio and Television in New York.

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