- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 13, 2008

After months of diplomatic quarrels, French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Sunday will host his cherished Union for the Mediterranean, a group aimed at promoting concrete projects among states bordering the Mediterranean Sea.

In the glass-domed Grand Palais in Paris, most of the leaders of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East are expected to endorse Mr. Sarkozy’s plan for the new north-south community.

“It is in southern Europe where our future has been at stake,” French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner wrote recently in a column in the Le Monde newspaper to justify the initiative.

Yet the road was long and tough before almost all of the 44 countries involved - 27 from Europe and 17 from North Africa and the Middle East - agreed to meet to start what Paris hopes will be the shining achievement of France’s six-month presidency of the European Union that began July 1.

The initial project Mr. Sarkozy outlined in a speech in Tangiers, Morocco, in October involved creating an organization linking only the EU members on the northern shore of the sea with North African and Middle Eastern countries to the south, with no role for northern European countries.

Italy and Spain quickly endorsed the plan, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel objected, claiming the plan could deepen regional polarization and become a rival of the European Union itself.

“Sarkozy’s idea was fair, as the Mediterranean Sea represents an instable geopolitical zone [that needs to be addressed]. But he presented his plan exactly the way he should not have done: seeming to play the game alone, without consulting any of his European counterparts and first of all Germany,” said Sylvie Goulard, head of the French wing of the European Movement, a pro-integration campaign group.

As a result, at an EU summit in March in Hanover, Germany, Mr. Sarkozy had to cut back his plan and agree to fold the proposed union into an existing EU-Mediterranean arrangement, eventually making the initiative a common EU plan in order to reach a compromise with Mrs. Merkel.

“Sarkozy understood France must work with its European partners to launch any significant project. We cannot do as if the EU did not exist. We need to cultivate our European garden,” Ms. Goulard wrote in an essay.

Soon after winning the support of Europe, Mr. Sarkozy faced problems bringing to the same table old rivals of the Middle East, especially the Arabs and Israel.

The burning question surrounding the inaugural meeting is whether Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Syrian President Bashar Assad will talk or even shake hands. Syria wants Israel to return the Golan Heights, seized in the 1967 Middle East war, while Israel wants Syria to sever its ties with Iran and stop backing Lebanese and Palestinian militants committed to the Jewish state’s destruction.

Mr. Sarkozy declared that the Mediterranean Union was “the best news for peace in the Middle East” and Mr. Kouchner qualified the meeting as a “historical success,” but analysts said the French president’s speech Sunday should be minimally political.

“The leaders may be coming, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they are ready to take part in a collective project,” said Dorothee Schmid, a researcher on European and Mediterranean issues at the French Institute of International Relations.

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, whose participation was seen as crucial for the union’s success, had long been hesitating because of rivalry with Morocco on the Western Sahara dispute. He eventually agreed to join last month thanks to France’s persuasive diplomacy.

Turkey, which saw the union as a ruse to deny Ankara an EU membership, also agreed to attend the summit after guarantees provided by France and the European Commission.

In the end, only Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi has refused to participate, severely criticizing the project as a neocolonialist ploy.

“We are neither hungry mouths nor dogs looking for bones,” he said at an Arab summit in Tripoli, Libya, last month.

According to an official draft, the union is to provide a “multilateral partnership” based on the “shared political will to make the Mediterranean an area of peace, democracy, cooperation and prosperity.”

Despite those ambitious objectives, the emphasis will be on concrete actions such as depolluting the sea, developing solar energy, improving Mediterranean shipping routes, promoting exchange student programs and setting up a regional university.

“This is the original thing in this union: the priority is given to projects that everyone will be able to measure the real effects [of],” Mr. Kouchner said.

This article is based in part on wire service reports

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