Sarkozy sells a mirage
The French president's project for Mediterranean cooperation has much to do with positioning France next to the US and little to do with Arab interests, writes Hassan Nafaa*
The heads of state of the European Union and of southern Mediterranean countries are scheduled to meet in Paris on 13 and 14 July. Their summit is expected to conclude with the proclamation of the establishment of a new international grouping called the "Union for the Mediterranean". It is perhaps premature to predict whether the new entity will be able to produce a qualitative shift in a historically shaky relationship between the two banks of the Mediterranean and thereby succeed where the "Barcelona process", set into motion in 1995, has failed so far. However, it is possible to note some opportunities for the new project and some obstacles that may mar its path. In order to identify these we must bear in mind some important facts as follows.
Sarkozy's original project, which was to be called the Mediterranean Union, was to create a more powerful institutional framework than the so-called Barcelona process. Its membership was to be restricted to countries bordering the Mediterranean. The project was a product of Sarkozy's European policy that aims, firstly, to halt the expansion of the EU in order to preserve its Christian identity, which translates into keeping Turkey out of it, and, secondly, to position France so it can play a leading role in a European Union that is more powerful and effective politically and militarily and less bureaucratically cumbersome at the social and economic levels. Sarkozy believes that France's leadership of a new formula -- partnership between Mediterranean countries -- will help it achieve these two aims.
France's European policy under Sarkozy stems from a broader vision of change that seeks to accomplish three interrelated domestic aims. The first is to restructure the French governing system, seeking inspiration from the spirit and mechanisms of the Anglo-Saxon model, in order to render it more efficient and effective. The second is to seal France's borders against illegal immigrants, especially those coming from the Arab and Islamic worlds, only cracking the doors open again to allow in the select few who meet France's demographic and economic needs. The third is to habilitate foreigners living in France to the French cultural and value systems, beneath the banner, "France: love it or leave it!" Meanwhile, at the foreign policy level, Sarkozy wants to contribute to forming a new global order in which France plays a more prominent and effective role. Towards this end, he wants to eliminate the chronic strain in France's relationship with the US and work towards the construction of a permanent strategic alliance between the two countries. He also wants France to resume its place in the NATO military structures from which it withdrew in 1966.
Many regional and international forces, notably the US, Israel and Turkey, managed to introduce fundamental modifications into Sarkozy's original project and to turn it from the "Mediterranean Union" into the "Union for the Mediterranean". There is a big difference between the two. Germany expressed its reservations on what it felt would give France a larger margin of manoeuvrability and increased influence in the EU at the expense of its own influence. The US exerted considerable pressure in the interest of linking the new project to NATO as a way of guaranteeing that it would not serve as leverage for any independent European tendencies. Turkey, for its part, wanted assurances that the project would not become an alternative or an obstacle to its membership in the EU, while Israel insisted that it become an instrument to promote normalisation, free-of-charge, between Israel and Arab and Islamic countries.
The interplay between the American, German, Israeli and Turkish positions created a platform of common interest in preventing the rise of a strong and independent Mediterranean organisation. Such a prospect has now been successfully forestalled through expanding the membership of the Union for the Mediterranean to include all EU countries instead of just the countries of the Mediterranean basin and through the adoption of an institutional framework that is not much different from that of the Barcelona process. The inclusion of non- Mediterranean countries guarantees a stronger linkage with NATO strategy and the Barcelona-type formula helps assuage Turkey's apprehensions. Because Turkey is an important and active member of NATO, all parties were keen to assure it that the doors to EU membership would remain open for fear that any signal to the contrary would push Ankara closer to the Arab and Islamic worlds.
Since the newly restructured project was announced, Sarkozy has scrambled to reconcile a host of contradictions. He has pleaded that closer ties between Paris and Washington will not come at the expense of France's autonomous will and that the purpose of this policy is to increase France's ability to influence the US and not the other way around. In a similar vein, he has argued that closer ties with Israel will not come at the expense of Arab interests and, in fact, will help France become more effective in supporting efforts to reach a just solution to the Middle East conflict. Likewise, France's resumption of its place in the NATO military hierarchy does not imply surrender to American ambitions of global hegemony. Rather, it is an avenue towards building a multi-polar world order in which Europe, under France's leadership, will be a partner with, not subordinate to, Washington.
The French president attempted to prove his ability to reconcile opposites on various occasions offered by the recent spurt in diplomatic activity in the Middle East. His re-engagement with Syria, he said, was instrumental to the conclusion of the Doha agreement that brought an end to the Lebanese crisis, with the blessing of the Arab League and without bringing France's policy into conflict with American political objectives. His subsequent invitation of Bashar Al-Assad to Paris to take part in the forthcoming summit was portrayed as a reward to the Syrian president for his cooperation on the Lebanese question, even though Al-Assad's presence in Paris will probably serve Sarkozy more than the other way around. Sarkozy's speech to the Knesset certainly struck a different tone to that of Bush's speech before the same assembly on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the founding of Israel. The French president stressed the need for Israel to halt all settlement activity on the grounds that settlement expansion obstructs the search for an acceptable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He also rejected Israel's claim to Jerusalem as its eternal capital, stating that this city must be shared with the Palestinians.
However, the Arabs should not be taken in by Sarkozy's seemingly accommodating words and actions, which I believe reflect more his willingness to play the good guy to the US-Israeli bad guy than they do an independent foreign policy line. That Paris agreed to change the Mediterranean Union into the Union for the Mediterranean and to offer guarantees that the new entity would not become a means to obstruct Turkey's acceptance into the EU can only have one meaning: France has opted for a strategy that prioritises NATO even over the EU, at least for the time being. In fact, some analysts have suggested that the Union for the Mediterranean, as it is now styled, is little more than the European version of the American project for a "Greater Middle East".
As for Sarkozy's remarks on the Palestinian-Israeli question, they are little more than a gesture. They are not going to halt Israeli settlement expansion or compel Israel to withdraw from East Jerusalem preparatory to declaring it the capital of an independent Palestinian state. What such gestures might do, on the other hand, is facilitate the accomplishment of an Israeli goal, which is to convert the Union for the Mediterranean into a vehicle for promoting normalisation with Arab and Islamic countries without Israel having to give anything in return. When one considers that the French stance on Iran is almost more hawkish than the American one, and closer to the Israeli stance, one is left with little room for doubt about France's true motives. This also puts French rapprochement with Syria in a clearer light. It is a bid to wean Damascus away from Tehran, preparatory to the implementation of plans for a military strike against Iran, or at least to tighten the diplomatic embargo against Tehran and isolate it regionally.
Whatever one might say about Sarkozy's Mediterranean project, one cannot escape the fact that the way the Europeans dealt with it and the way the Arabs dealt with it could not have been more different. Whereas the European interplay gave rise to a convergence of sometimes conflicting interests, the Arabs have been unable to formulate a common stance on a project that addresses them, first and foremost, and that is about to be launched in their direction from Paris on the occasion of France's commemoration of the fall of the Bastille. We know that President Mubarak did not attend a meeting of the Mediterranean Forum held recently in Tripoli and in which Colonel Gaddafi proclaimed, with his customary histrionics, that the Union for the Mediterranean was "an insult to the Arabs and Africans". The Algerian president voiced similar reservations on the same occasion, albeit in a different style. However, such objections or reservations have done nothing to alter the progress of the Sarkozy project. Moreover, it is not unlikely that all the Arab countries concerned will attend the summit in Paris, each, of course, for reasons of its own and in pursuit of its own agenda, since there is no "Arab agenda" or Arab order capable of setting certain bounds for Arab relations with the rest of the world.
So, I believe it will be quite easy for Sarkozy to sell to the Arabs a French role that stands apart from the American role on the surface only. History teaches us that the French can only play a major part in world affairs if they can operate independently from the Americans. The bipolar order created a window of opportunity for De Gaule to assert a distinct and independent French policy. Such an opportunity does not present itself now, and even if it did one doubts that Sarkozy would seize it in view of how closely he has linked his country with American interests and how committed he is to American and Israeli points of view. Of course, Sarkozy may be driven by his love of the spotlight to do something sensational such as arranging for a "historic" handshake between Olmert and Al-Assad in Paris. But the handshake, if it takes place, will alter nothing on the ground and will only benefit Olmert and Sarkozy.
Arab governments should, therefore, realise that they will be unable to score an achievement of any sort, whether in the negotiating process with Israel or in their relations with governments and regional organisations abroad, unless they put their own house in order, which entails reconciling Palestinian factions first, and then mending other Arab fences. Until they do this in a way that permits Arab governments to act in coordination with each other, no one will take the Arab world seriously. Meanwhile, given the Arabs' current state of fragmentation, Sarkozy will probably be able to sell them his Union for the Mediterranean, which they will grasp only to discover it is a mirage.
* The writer is secretary-general of the Arab Thought Forum.