Thursday, May 17, 2007

NICOSIA, Cyprus — Plans are being discussed, with strong backing from new French President Nicolas Sarkozy, to group 16 countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea into a loose union cooperating on economic, security and other issues, according to diplomatic missives circulating in regional capitals.

The idea for such a union, embracing a wide range of religions, races and political systems, is being welcomed in most countries involved but prompting deep suspicion in Turkey, which fears it will be offered as an alternative to long-sought membership in the European Union.

The documents, which have been made available to The Washington Times, quote Mr. Sarkozy saying the Mediterranean grouping would work closely with the European Union to address clashing interests around the sea, which was the center of the known world in antiquity.

“The Mediterranean region is where everything is played out,” the documents quote Mr. Sarkozy, a former interior minister, as having said during his presidential campaign. “Let’s make space for a great dream of peace and civilization.”

The plan, initiated by Mr. Sarkozy, calls for intense, multistructured cooperation in the fields of trade, energy, security, counterterrorism and immigration, tying southern Europe with Israel and its Arab neighbors.

Mr. Sarkozy has proposed a “leading role” for Turkey in the union, but that has done little to ease fears in Ankara, where authorities are well aware of the French president’s opposition to full EU membership for Turkey.

“This must not be a substitute for Turkey’s membership in the EU,” one government official in Ankara said.

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, quoted yesterday by Agence France-Presse, voiced similar doubts, saying, “Turkey is one of the Mediterranean countries, but cooperation in the Mediterranean is one thing and cooperation within Europe is something else.”

Several regional diplomats expressed surprise that Mr. Sarkozy, who paid scant attention to foreign affairs during his electoral campaign, would put forward such an innovative and wide-ranging proposal.

Some chanceries reportedly share Turkey’s suspicion that Mr. Sarkozy is seeking a way to block Ankara’s already difficult EU accession talks, now stymied by Turkey’s refusal to recognize the Greek Cypriot government and several internal issues.

The idea of a Mediterranean grouping was first broached in December 2003 in Tunis by five North African countries — Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania — and five European countries — Italy, France, Spain, Portugal and Malta.

The objective of the Tunis plan, known as “5 plus 5,” was to overcome differences in culture and levels of development to turn the Mediterranean into a “sea of peace.” Mr. Sarkozy appears to have expanded that idea to include other nations around the sea. Several Balkan countries bordering the Adriatic Sea are excluded, as in Mauritania, which faces the Atlantic Ocean, but Portugal — which also faces the Atlantic — is retained.

While French president, Jacques Chirac described the Tunis document as “historic” when it was signed, but there has been little follow-up. Diplomats say that Tunisia, which organized the 2003 conference, has not demonstrated the required leadership or leverage to translate the event into action.

Mr. Sarkozy’s plan calls for regular summit meetings with a rotating presidency and close links with the European Union. The concept would attract countries searching for better ties with the 27-member European club, which includes seven Mediterranean area countries.

“The time has come to build together a Mediterranean union,” Mr. Sarkozy is quoted as saying. “The Mediterranean is a key to our influence in the world, also a key to Islam torn between modernity and fundamentalism.”

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