Mediterranean Union, seen from Washington

Just over a year after his election to the French presidency Nicolas Sarkozy has fulfilled one of his electoral promise, that of establishing a union for the Mediterranean, a project that was dear to his heart.

By Claude Salhani (View from Washington)

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Published: Sat 19 Jul 2008, 10:14 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:21 PM

Washington, however, has still not fully grasped what this new union is meant to achieve, and quite possibly neither have much of the Europeans or the rest of the group's members, for that matter. There are suspicions among some observers that one of Sarkozy's (ulterior) motives in bringing together the existing members of the European Union and the countries of the Mediterranean basin in this new alliance is to keep Turkey out of the EU.

The French president is quite adamant about keeping Turkey out of the Brussels club, a move that finds much support in other European capitals, such as Vienna for example, but a policy highly criticised by the George W. Bush administration in Washington. Indeed, Washington's continued insistence that Ankara be admitted into the EU has begun to irritate more than a few Europeans.

Nevertheless, the new union, which kicked off in great pomp and circumstance in Paris just before the Bastille Day - July 14 National Day celebrations - brings together a majority of European countries and those of the Mediterranean basin, including longtime enemies, Syria and Israel. And although there were no direct contacts between Syrian President Bashar Al Assad and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, indirect talks did take place thanks to the good graces of the Turkish prime minister.

While many questions remain unanswered, Sarkozy's brainchild nevertheless managed to convene no less than 43 nations, representing nearly 800 million people; an impressive market, if that is the intended aim of this project. Overall a good start, but what happens next? Well, other than the next meeting scheduled for November.

Other than that, indeed very much remains unresolved including where the Secretariat General of the Union is to be based, or for that matter, which country will be the first to chair the new Union. In the greater scope of things, those are rather trivial details that can easily be agreed upon.

Perhaps the more pertinent questions are if the Union for the Mediterranean is intended to play a political role in the region, particularly in the Middle East, where numerous crises are brewing — Israel and the Palestinians, Iraq, Iran and its nuclear desires, Syria and its Lebanese desires and the issue of the divided Cyprus.

In fact, is the new Union meant to tackle the region's problems in tandem with the European Union, or is it meant to supplement the EU? Is it intended to replace US influence or back it up? Will it have the clout it needs for example to mediate in the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, without the political support of the United States?

Can any of the European countries or those of the Mediterranean basin be in a position to provide Israel the safety guarantees it requires from the United States before it can reach any lasting peace agreement with the Palestinians? Similarly, are any of those 42 other countries capable of applying pressure on Israel, to nudge it along into a peace treaty, the way Washington might? Again, the answer is unlikely.

Or, is the Union for the Mediterranean intended to appease Turkey, if the French president succeeds in keeping Ankara out of the Brussels club?

Regardless of what its critics may say or what reservations they may hold of this latest of political clubs, Sarkozy can walk away from the first reunion with a feather in his cap. Apparently, President Bashar Al Assad of Syria promised his Lebanese counterpart, General Michel Suleiman, that Syria and Lebanon would exchange diplomatic missions, something Damascus has long been reluctant to do.

Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times and a political analyst in Washington, DC.

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