- The Washington Times - Monday, July 14, 2008

MARSEILLE, France | The guest list alone made French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s first big event as leader of the European Union a splashy affair.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sat at the same table with Syrian President Bashar Assad, albeit at opposite ends of a rather large table - big enough to accommodate 40 leaders who announced a new political group called “Union for the Mediterranean.”

Mr. Olmert and Mr. Assad were too distant to shake hands in the Paris venue and the awkwardness of the guest list helped persuade leaders to forgo the trophy for events of this sort: the group photograph.

Nevertheless, Mr. Sarkozy proclaimed the effort a success.

“It is a great initiative that has been born. We have to complete it now and then take it on further,” said Mr. Sarkozy, who championed the new union as France took the helm as president of the European Union for the next six months.

Flanked by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Mr. Sarkozy earlier urged the Mediterranean leaders - representing about 756 million people - to set aside their differences and work toward a common future.

Mr. Sarkozy was forced to settle for an outcome more modest than his original plan to create a regional economic and political group that would overlap and cooperate with the 27-nation European Union.

Instead, leaders agreed to develop solar energy and to battle pollution in the Mediterranean, the backdrop for Marseille - a tattered, teeming, sunwashed port city that embodies far greater ambitions of a new partnership among Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.

Throughout Maresille, sounds of construction split the air, testament of a massive urban renewal project aimed to bring new trade and investment to this commercial hub in southern France. It hopes to become the headquarters of the Mediterranean union.

Beyond the smiles and backslapping of leaders in Paris, the event has been dogged by criticism, its scope diluted by German objections and its eclectic membership.

Apart from the improbable partnership of enemies such as Syria and Israel, countries like Algeria and Libya expressed reservations.

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi skipped the summit, warning that the union could increase terrorism.

“Many southern countries have dashed expectations,” said Clara O´Donnell, an analyst at the Center for European Reform in London. “They´re upset because it was sold to them as a very ambitious proposal. And they saw it being undermined from within the EU, so they didn´t even have a say.”

The union succeeds the current partnership known as the Barcelona Process, which critics say has delivered little since its initiation in 1995.

It is expected to have rotating co-presidents, likely starting with France and Egypt. Mr. Mubarak co-hosted Sunday’s event with Mr. Sarkozy.

The next step is to choose the site of a headquarters. Besides Marseille, suggested sites include Morocco, Malta or Tunisia.

Supporters claim the union offers new chances for cooperation between the European Union and non-European Mediterranean countries in areas like environmental protection, renewable energy and infrastructure development.

“We have a shared history. We have a shared geography. But we have more than that. We are united by common interests - about what we need to do individually and collectively in a global world which is tough,” European Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson told business leaders from across the Mediterranean meeting in Marseille last week.

On the political front, Saturday’s arrival of Syria’s Mr. Assad in Paris featured an agreement with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman to establish formal diplomatic ties between the two neighbors.

The gathering also offered Mr. Sarkozy a break from domestic politics, after being badly battered in public opinion polls in recent months.

In an interview in France´s Le Figaro newspaper prior to the summit, Mr. Assad suggested that the French leader get involved in talks between Syria and Israel.

“My impression is that he is enthusiastic about these negotiations and for France to play a direct role in them,” Mr. Assad said. “If he confirms this to me, I will invite him to directly support the peace process, and, of course, I´m speaking here about direct negotiations.”

But on Sunday, when the time approached for Israel’s Mr. Olmert to give his speech, Mr. Assad left the table, Israeli officials told the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Mr. Olmert did meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, where details of a pending prisoner exchange this week with Lebanon’s Hezbollah were discussed.

“We have never been as close to a possible [peace] agreement as we are today,” Mr. Olmert told reporters before the meeting, which also included Mr. Sarkozy.

Back home, the Israeli leader faced growing calls for his resignation amid new allegations of corruption.

Business leaders in Marseille, however, hope the potential for new growth opportunities will dwarf political squabbles evident at the Paris summit.

In Marseille, they called on the pact’s members to boost regional trade by 10 percent a year and to triple foreign investment by 2020.

“Right now, there´s not so much investment from Arab countries,” said Liat Shaham of Invest in Israel, an Israeli government agency, who manned a booth at a Marseille business meeting before the summit. “This is part of the project. This is supposed to bring us together, to build bridges via economic relations.”

Marseillaise Hanan Jaabiri agreed. With a father from Tunisia and a mother from Spain - and fluent in five languages - 29-year-old Ms. Jaabiri is a typical product of this multiethnic city.

“I´ve met a number of people from Europe, the U.S. and the [Persian] Gulf states who are interested in exporting their goods throughout the region. But the main problem is the language,” she said.

“For instance, Spanish exporters aren´t always able to develop in the Maghreb countries - so I can help them find customers and partners there.”

cThis article is based in part on wire service reports.

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