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Sunday, November 15, 2009


Why Sarkozy’s Mediterranean plan looks worth a try

The once-promising relationship between the European Union and the Mediterranean neighbours is floundering badly. Jean-François Daguzan traces the reasons for its decline over the last 10 years and suggests the policy mix needed to get it moving again.

With no little pomp and ceremony, a high-level conference was organised in Barcelona last November by the Spanish government to re-launch the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (MEDA), which for some time had appeared paralysed. Heads of state and government from the European Union and Mediterranean countries were invited as it was felt their presence would symbolise the notion of a special relationship between north and south, and would celebrate the 10th anniversary of MEDA’s launch in Barcelona in 1996. Unfortunately, only EU heads of government turned up. The southern side of the table, so to speak, was unoccupied other than by Prime Minister of Turkey, as a candidate for EU accession, and the chairman of the Palestinian Authority. Paralysis, it seemed clear, had indeed set in.

Disappointing though all this was for the conference’s organisers, the reasons for the meeting’s failure were obvious enough. There is much dissatisfaction in the south with the slender results of the past 10 years (however much responsibility the southerners may have for this) accompanied by a widespread lack of understanding of Europe’s objectives for the future. The southern partners have refused to be bound by the European Neighbourhood Policy. Abdelaziz Belkhadem, the Algerian Prime Minister, at one point drily remarked: “Mediterranean countries find it humiliating that Europeans demand reform in exchange for a handful of euros.”

A five-year working programme has yielded only patchy results. It has not tackled hard security, but emphasis has been placed on human security and on more cooperation over migration. There has been satisfactory development of transnational projects in sectors like transport and energy that were sorely lacking in earlier plans, and education has become one of the programme’s strong points. Another important element is the unspoken yet apparently definite consensus on the creation of a Mediterranean investment bank based on the experience of the European Investment Bank’s Mediterranean instrument. This working tool, first requested by Mediterranean and southern European countries more than 10 years ago, but systematically refused by governments in northern Europe, is badly needed for the development of the Mediterranean zone.

Issues like terrorism – where Tunisia has proposed an anti-terrorist code of good conduct – and security were touched upon only in the presidency’s non-binding conclusions.

European Commission president José Manuel Barroso has said that the Mediterranean is an “absolute priority for Europe”, but it’s not at all clear whether the south shares the same priorities. For some southern countries the EU’s “fraternal support” is looking increasingly burdensome. In exchange for a degree of financial aid (the actual amounts of which are not yet known), the Union is asking its partner states to subject themselves to stringent conditions that reflect its own concerns: democracy and human rights, a free trade area, tougher controls on terrorism and migration, nuclear non-proliferation and so on. At the end of the day, much is being asked in exchange for rather modest returns. What is more, the southern states are rightly wary of the fact that they will not be setting the same privileged treatment as the countries on the EU’s eastern periphery. In 1995, the ratio of European aid between the Mediterranean and the east was fixed by an informal agreement between the southern Europeans and Germany at 1 to 3 in eastern Europe’s favour, and the fear now is that this ratio could easily worsen.

The region’s many problems persist, of course. As well as the time bomb of the near East, economic, social and political crisis besets all the Arab countries. The huge benefits enjoyed by those that are oil or gas producing countries, and Israel’s position as a technological and globalised society, do nothing to mask the absence of dynamism and investment in other countries of the region. Like emigration rates, political and terrorist violence are barometers of societies in crisis and of authoritarian regimes that are incapable of dealing with either intellectual or industrial modernisation. Europe is therefore particularly concerned with any expressions of radicalism whose origins can be blamed, unconsciously or not, on “the other side”. The other side, meanwhile, often returns the compliment and holds the West responsible for almost all its problems and humiliations.

And when we look at all these issues from a global, geo-political perspective, the situation seems even more worrying. In recent years, we have witnessed a shift in the world’s centre of gravity from western Europe to Asia; the region’s massive economic development now means that many major worldwide strategic issues like climate change are concentrated along a Tehran-Beijing-Tokyo axis, with China and India as the essential points of gravity.

From this standpoint, the Mediterranean finds itself on the periphery, set back from the course of history and global developments. The European Union, which some claim as being at the centre of the 21st century’s new dynamics, is crippled by its on-going institutional and identity crisis. The “drift of economic continents” , the phrase Henri Régnault used to describe the rapprochement between the European, American and Asian economies to the detriment of the Mediterranean and eastern Europe, has turned into a strategic drift towards America and Asia from which Europe is increasingly excluded.

France’s new President Nicolas Sarkozy has, however, made a proposal that suggests some new thinking on the subject. In February, during his election campaign, he outlined in Toulon the idea of a possible “Mediterranean Union”. It made little impact at the time, but grew legs in May when Sarkozy returned to it in his victory speech. “The time has come,” he said, “to build together a Mediterranean Union that will be the bridge between Europe and Africa.” It would be composed of countries ringing the Mediterranean, some democratic, some clearly not − Spain, Italy, Greece, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Turkey, Algeria and so on. Some observers liken it to the early days of the European Union, but obviously it would be more diverse.

Periodic meetings of members would be held in the style of the G-8 industrial countries, while the secretariat would be provided by a Mediterranean Council based on the model of the Council of Europe. A collective security system would be introduced, while co-development would be the basis of the contract between signatories. It would seek to end corruption, organised crime and terrorism, and would be involved in concrete projects with a primary focus on the environment. This Mediterranean Union would, it goes almost without saying, replace France’s more traditional Arab policies.

Sarkozy’s suggestion is fraught, though, with a number of difficulties that will have to be faced: Turkey, which it must be presumed the idea is also addressed to, has already rejected the initiative, which it not unreasonably sees as a consolation prize for being denied EU membership. Reactions from Italy and Spain have also been reserved.

At the same time, the Israel-Palestinian and Lebanese-Syrian issues have already brought the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership to a standstill, and may well do the same for the Mediterranean Union. Dreams of a collective security pact for the Mediterranean will have to wait until both issues are resolved. And underlying all this, the fundamental issue remains the deteriorating political, economic and social situation of the south and the growth of Islamic terrorism.

But a custom-designed approach, taking baby steps, might just be possible, starting with North Africa. Finding ways to start up the Euro-Mediterranean relationship again in a new format demands a policy of baby steps: the first step must be a reinforced but reciprocal economic policy of reform. Introducing good governance is not enough: this must be accompanied by modernisation of the political and administrative structures of southern countries. The second step is towards sustainable development. The decline in living conditions on the other side of the Mediterranean basin affects its competitiveness and its attractiveness to investors. Introducing joint policies combining ecology and economic development would be a promising line of attack. The third step is connected with the second and involves energy interconnections, for which there is considerable potential given Algerian and Libyan hydrocarbon resources. And the fourth step would be cooperation in dealing with organised crime, trafficking and terrorism. These are matters that have already been discussed fairly fruitfully within the MEDA framework in Dialogue 5+5 in Tunis in 2003, and even in NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue. But they could, usefully, be the object of a new ad hoc partnership.

The EU’s grand Mediterranean designs – the “alliance of civilisations” advocated by Spain’s Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero, and also by Kofi Annan when he was UN Secretary-General – has got off on the wrong foot, except perhaps from the very limited standpoint of security. Things have reached such a standstill that the European Commission’s most recent pronouncement on MEDA was entitled “Time to Deliver!”. Mistrust and doubts about the future still linger on, displacing any hopes of a new political vision and shared economic dynamics. Yet millions of people on the other side of the Mediterranean are still waiting for concrete solutions to their pressing economic, social and political problems.

But for how much longer will these people continue to look towards Europe? Relaunching the EU’s faltering Mediterranean policy by founding a new union of the region’s neighbours may just be the way to break the deadlock, but it will be a fine line to tread. Turning the Mediterranean basin from a sea of actual and potential conflict into the oft-mentioned “lake of peace” is undoubtedly one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. But Europe’s security depends on it, and with the situation now increasingly pressing, let’s give the Mediterranean Union a chance.

Autumn 2007
by Jean-François Daguzan




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