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Sarkozy tests the Mediterranean Union in the Maghreb

Le Figaro, France

Sarkozy tests the Mediterranean Union in the Maghreb

By Alain Barluet

10 July 2007

The head of state is making his first trip outside of Europe to Algeria and Tunisia. Nicolas Sarkozy flies this morning [ 10 July] to Algiers, where he will have a meeting and working lunch with the president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, before going to Tunis. This working visit was shortened at the last minute by a stopover in Morocco, "at the request of the Moroccan authorities," Elysee [the president’s office] sources say. According to diplomats, Rabat was irritated that the president of the Republic starts in Algeria a visit already deemed too short. As it turns out, the president will make a state visit to Morocco in October. He is also expected to return to Algeria in the fall.

The president is leaving for the Maghreb today with the goal of defending one of his main diplomatic projects, the Mediterranean Union. He believes "the future of Europe and France is decided also, and perhaps first of all, in the Mediterranean," explains Elysee spokesperson David Martinon. This project, he adds, seeks to create "a space of solidarity and cooperation" focused on the fight against organized crime and terrorism, sustainable development, energy, co-development, and immigration. On the eve of his election Nicolas Sarkozy issued an emotional "appeal to all the peoples of the Mediterranean." "The time has come to build together a Mediterranean Union that will be a link between Europe and Africa," he said.

The idea has matured over a long period of time. During the campaign the minister-candidate noted the failure of the Barcelona Process, launched in 1995 and designed to bring the Mediterranean coastal countries closer together. (Footnote) ("Quelle Union mediterraneenne ? [What Sort of Mediterranean Union ?], journal Geoeconomie, No 42, Summer 2007) Two speeches, in March 2005 in Rabat and February 2007 in Toulon, outlined an alternative. With its 38 members (the 27 of the EU, the Commission, and 10 countries of the South), the Euromed venue, mired in the Israeli-Arab confrontations and inter-Arab rivalries, has proven ungovernable and devoid of visible goals.

Sarkozy would like to confine the dialogue with the European countries bordering the Mare Nostrum (adding Portugal). The Mediterranean Union would hinge on summits (G-Med), a type of G8 with an associated Council of the Mediterranean similar to the Council of Europe. A system of collective security would be established, with co-development the contractual foundation among the signatories. The political dialogue conducted in the Euromed would be continued in parallel. "It is a win-win idea that can give Europe back its power," Jean-Louis Guigou, general delegate of IPEMed, a think tank of experts, industrialists, and politicians of the Mediterranean region, says enthusiastically. Having spent more than two years refining the outlines of a Mediterranean Community, he claims responsibility for producing the prospects praised by Nicolas Sarkozy.

Numerous Obstacles Remain

With many shadowy areas remaining to be defined, the reception of the Mediterranean countries at this point has been cautious. Jean-Louis Guigou calls this an "historic" opportunity to take up an "inspiring utopia." After having absorbed the East with much effort, the EU needs the South to develop, he argues. The elites of the South know that demographically the moment is favourable because the proportion of working-age people in their population will rise between now and 2020. With 20 to 40 years of hydrocarbon reserves, they need to successfully develop now and secure their energy future. They are interested in the prospects offered by Nicolas Sarkozy in the area of civil nuclear power. In return, Europe intends to assure its gas supplies, which are weakened on the Russian front.

Even so many obstacles remain, in particular the Israeli-Palestinian crisis that has contributed to dragging down the Barcelona Process. Avoiding the pitfalls will require moving ahead step by step, starting with the Western Mediterranean (on the basis of the 5+5 format, limited to the five countries of the Greater Maghreb). The sensitivities of Brussels, which fears seeing the Euromed buried, as do Spain and Italy, will also have to be taken into account. The rivalries in the South, fuelled by the crises (Western Sahara and others), are strong. Nicolas Sarkozy has just seen that once again between Algeria and Morocco. Turkey does not look kindly at a project presented as an alternative to its entry into the EU. Nonetheless, "after the explanations provided by Paris, Ankara will not impose its veto," Jean-Louis Guigou suggests.