Last Updated: Mon Nov 01, 2010 20:31 pm (KSA) 17:31 pm (GMT)

Defining a better Mediterranean union

Dana Moss

Next July 13, in Paris, Europe will better define the Union for the Mediterranean (UM), its latest venture in the Middle East. Initially proposed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the idea has undergone radical transformation, so that the current incarnation bears little resemblance to the initial proposal. The shape of the UM will only be clear once the July summit is over, but as things now stand, the union holds many challenges, but also some promise, for the Middle East.

The original idea, floated during Sarkozy's presidential campaign, was highly nebulous. Seen as a means of rebuilding France's role in the Middle East, the plan was also a way for Sarkozy to appeal to voters of North African origin. Initially, it involved the 10 Mediterranean states and only the southern states of the European Union. However, Germany, fearing the creation of a power block within the EU, vociferously objected. Chancellor Angela Merkel slammed the plan as "very dangerous," arguing it would release "explosive forces in the EU that I would not like to see."

As a result of German lobbying, the UM idea has since been watered down. Whereas initially the union was to be independent of existing EU instruments, such as the Barcelona Process and the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), it has now been reconfigured, as Hans-Gert Pottering, the president of the European Parliament, has described it, to "strengthen and further the Barcelona Process." The UM is now attached to the EU and involves all 27 member states. Additional EU funds will not be forthcoming, although it is rumored that Qatar and private donors will be contributing money. The UM, however, does still maintain its project-specific nature, with an opt-out clause for those states who do not wish to take part in the projects being offered, which currently center on energy, pollution, and civil security cooperation issues.

But even the new, expanded project is drawing a fair amount of flak. As one commentator noted, the involvement of the 27 EU states may lead to a danger of "too many meetings, with too many participants that achieve too little." Such concerns compound fears of duplication and an expansion of an already overly bureaucratic European system, unless extreme care is taken in overseeing the linkage with the ENP.

Pessimists point to other potential stumbling blocks - primarily the acrimonious relations between the Middle Eastern partners in the UM. Chief among these worries is the simmering Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but hostile Syrian-Lebanese relations and Moroccan-Algerian tensions are also predicted to place limits on what the UM can realistically achieve. Supporters, however, liken this to the EU model, whereby shared interests might generate conflict resolution, with French Minister for European Affairs Henri Guaino arguing that "it's through concrete cooperation ... that we can create solidarity between nations."

As observers have noted, most of the areas marked for projects have been those where collaboration has taken place under the Barcelona Process. Closer regional relations, therefore, will have to result not from a novel approach, but from revived association - a question of degree, not content.

Yet if Guaino's argument is correct, then the UM might do more than enable Israeli-Palestinian cooperation. Collaboration on various projects may also provide a helpful platform in aiding rapprochement in North Africa, vital in light of rising violence by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Another point of criticism is the lack of clarity regarding the relationship of the UM with the EU's political basket - namely the need to enhance democracy and rule of law in the Middle East. So far, the UM appears focused on business-oriented initiatives, leading human rights activists to fear the sidelining of democracy and rule of law requirements within the framework of the EU's relationship with the Mediterranean states.

Yet the silence over governance issues can cut both ways. For the Arab counterparts, it's a welcome relief. Combined with the shared presidency of the UM (one European country will hold the post together with a Mediterranean country), this could go some way toward addressing regional resentment of the Barcelona Process and the ENP - viewed by many as unfairly weighed in favor of the EU. Redressing this imbalance will enable a sense of appropriation by the Mediterranean counterparts, providing for more enthusiastic European-Middle East relations.

This will no doubt be propelled forward by the economic regeneration and job creation aims of the UM. Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci summarized the Middle Eastern reaction when he said "if the aim of this project is to create development projects in the Mediterranean region then it is obvious that we should support it." Yet laudable though these aims are, the focus on economic reform must be coupled with pressure for political reform within the ENP framework. Unless the two are twinned, economic advantages may continue to primarily benefit groups close to the political elite, as opposed to Middle Eastern populations at large.

Aside from these concerns, major questions remain. How will Syria, whose association agreement with the EU has been frozen as a result of its suspected role in the February 2005 assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, fit into this framework? What shape can EU-Libyan relations take? The signs are encouraging for future EU-Middle Eastern relations, but to fulfill the promise of the UM, European policymakers must also be aware of the potential problems.

*Published in Lebanon's THE DAILY STAR on April 21, 2008. Dana Moss is a senior fellow at the Transatlantic Institute in Brussels. She wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

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