Reuters | Thu 13 Mar 2008
EU leaders agree on watered-down "Club Med" plan
By Ingrid Melander and Paul Taylor
BRUSSELS, March 13 (Reuters) — European Union leaders agreed on Thursday to a watered-down version of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s grand design for a Mediterranean Union to boost ties with the bloc’s southern neighbours.
Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel presented the plan to a 27-nation EU summit on Thursday evening after months of fierce resistance by Berlin forced Paris to drop the most controversial features.
"This initiative enjoys support in the Council and work will now begin in the relevant council bodies in order to prepare everything necessary," Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa said after chairing the first day of the summit.
The concept has shrunk from an international forum grouping only states around the Mediterranean, with nine new agencies and a bank, to a mere regular summit of EU and Mediterranean basin countries with a joint presidency and a small secretariat.
Merkel said the original plan would have split the EU and siphoned off common funds for the benefit of a few members and their former colonies.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso applauded the idea, now it is clear that it will involve all EU countries and not divide Europe between north and south. He said the Commission would be asked to make practical proposals.
Others were less enthusiastic.
Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer said the idea "doesn’t do any harm" but added: "What matters to us is that it’s not some special grill party for a few member states."
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk hinted he might link support for closer ties with Mediterranean countries to Warsaw’s desire to see its eastern neighbour Ukraine given the prospect of eventual EU membership.
WHERE’S THE SUBSTANCE?
Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen highlighted an apparent lack of practical content to the Franco-German plan.
"We have the title and not very much about what it will mean. We are very curious to have something about the substance," he said.
In practice, the Union for the Mediterranean, to be launched in Paris on July 13, will be little more than a new political umbrella over the existing Euro-Mediterranean partnership, launched in 1995 in Barcelona.
That process of trade, cultural and political cooperation has yielded disappointing results partly due to the lingering Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also because most of the Mediterranean partner states have opaque, authoritarian governments poorly equipped to absorb EU funds.
Progress towards the original aim of a Euro-Mediterranean free trade area by 2010 has been slow, with the EU’s southern states insisting on keeping out rival farm produce.
Over the years, the focus has shifted from providing multilateral support for Israeli-Palestinian peace process to combating terrorism and illegal migration.
Spanish Secretary of State for European Affairs Alberto Navarro said the proposed rotating co-presidency would not work because Arab states would want to avoid it going to Israel.
At Germany’s insistence, there will be no new EU money beyond the funds allocated for the Barcelona process. France hopes to tap private sector funding in addition.
But Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi said a stronger Mediterranean policy would require extra resources.
"If we start strengthening the Barcelona Process but we do not increase the resources, we will have the same frustration as the countries of the southern Mediterranean shore," he said.
French diplomats say they hope the Paris summit will launch a handful of high-profile new projects such as a clean-up of the polluted Mediterranean Sea, joint efforts to combat climate change and fight forest fires.
(Additional reporting by Ingrid Melander, Francesco Guarascio, Yves Clarisse and Marja Novak; Writing by Paul Taylor; Editing by Myra MacDonald)