“It’s been floated around as a general idea without anybody giving very careful thought to what it really means.”
Athens – The deep blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea connect three continents
and 21 countries with a combined population of more than 400 million. But can this vast and diverse region — with Christians, Muslims, and Jews; Africans, Europeans, and Arabs — operate as a coherent political entity?
That’s the idea that French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been touting in his first three months in office. Launching his presidency with big ideas, he’s proposed the creation of a “Mediterranean Union” to address common regional issues such as immigration, terrorism, environmental degradation, and economic development. Despite its hazy outlines, the plan appears to be gathering momentum on opposite sides of the sea.
But many observers familiar with the nuts and bolts of Euro-Mediterranean relations are skeptical that such a grouping could function on the grand scale Sarkozy seems to be suggesting.
“It’s been floated around as a general idea without anybody giving very careful thought to what it really means,” says Richard Youngs, director of the democratization program at FRIDE, a Madrid-based think thank. “If this does reflect a genuine desire on the part of the new French government to reengage itself in Mediterranean issues, that’s welcome. But it requires some careful thought.”
For European countries like France and Spain — which are increasingly feeling the effects of North African poverty and political insecurity — the idea of a new regional grouping for the Mediterranean is attractive precisely because it may offer a forum for tackling the diverse region’s many problems. Egypt, Tunisia, and Spain have attached at least tentative support to the idea in recent months, despite the absence of any concrete suggestions from France as to how exactly such an entity would work.
Indeed, for many political analysts in the region, Sarkozy’s nascent idea creates more questions than answers: Would it be a supranational organization like the EU with the power to set national laws or merely an institutionalized forum for discussion? And how would it interact with the existing regional organizations — such as the EU, African Union, and Union of the Arab Maghreb — to which its potential members already belong?
“The risk,” says Dr. Youngs, “is of simply adding another initiative that merely confuses the picture even more.”
The idea of a Mediterranean Union has been around for at least a decade. But the energetic French president has breathed new life into the concept as he’s jetted around the region meeting with area leaders in what many analysts see as an attempt to boost France’s role as a leader in international relations.
Sarkozy discussed it during meetings with his counterparts in Tunisia and Algeria in a July tour of the Maghreb, talked it up during a working dinner in Slovenia with foreign ministers of EU Mediterranean states, and advertised it during a joint press conference earlier this month with Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.
DorothÃ©e Schmid, a researcher on Mediterranean issues at the French Institute for International Relations, says French diplomats are working to formulate a more concrete proposal that is likely to be made public sometime in the fall. A Mediterranean project,
she suggested, may be a centerpiece of France’s presidency of the EU in the second half of
But she warned that the political climate in the region now may be less conducive to cooperation than in the past, due to increased security issues and heightened international tensions between the Arab world and the West.
Ultimately, too, she says, states must ask themselves whether the Mediterranean
is itself a region, or a meeting point between them.
“Is the Mediterranean a region in economic terms, in cultural terms — in any way except for the geographical aspect?” asks Ms. Schmid. “The legitimacy of a Mediterranean frame is quite dubious, I think. Especially on political grounds.”