Sarkozy’s mediterranean plan slow to get moving

BRUSSELS — Once described by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France as his «Mediterranean dream,» a plan to bind Europe to its southern neighbors was supported by no fewer than 43 countries at a summit meeting in a glittering Parisian palace in July.

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Four months later, the Union for the Mediterranean is deadlocked over where to base its headquarters, who should attend meetings and who should get the top jobs.

On Monday in Marseilles, foreign ministers from the 27 European Union nations and their Mediterranean neighbors (plus Jordan and Mauritania) will engage in a round of horse-trading designed to find a way out of the impasse.

The meeting will be a crucial test of the credibility of plans for Europe to cooperate with southern neighbors on issues ranging from immigration and energy to the environment and transport.

Sarkozy’s idea for a Mediterranean Union was always controversial and infuriated Germany because, when first proposed, it appeared to exclude the EU’s northern states.

The French president compromised, renaming the initiative the Barcelona Process Union for the Mediterranean, in deference to the Barcelona Process, an EU initiative toward the Mediterranean nations that began in 1995 and has failed to deliver on expectations.

Undeterred by the challenge of doing business with a constellation of countries as diverse as Israel, Turkey and Syria, Sarkozy argued that the EU’s southern states and their non-EU neighbors should «realize that their destinies are tied together.»

Instead, the countries involved are sparring over the location of the body’s secretariat, a decision that will bring jobs and prestige.

Tunis emerged as an early favorite, backed by France, but then Malta pitched in. Barcelona has become a strong rival, offering as a base the Palace of Pedralbes, a grand, 17th-century building whose grounds include a fountain created by Antoni Gaudi.

Meanwhile the European commissioner for external relations, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, said Friday that she had proposed Brussels as a backup in case there was no agreement.

The EU has a history of arguing over such decisions: Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy once stopped a plan to situate an EU food safety agency in Helsinki, complaining that the Finns did not even know what prosciutto was.

But the dispute highlights one of the fault lines in the Barcelona Process Union for the Mediterranean: ambivalence over the importance of democratic reform in southern states.

Tunis proved controversial because some felt Tunisia’s human rights failings would send the wrong message about the priorities for the Union for the Mediterranean.

Alvaro de Vasconcelos, director of the European Union Institute for Security Studies, an EU-financed foreign policy research institute, said that differentiated the Barcelona Process Union for the Mediterranean from European efforts to spread its influence beyond its eastern borders.

«Most European governments,» de Vasconcelos said, «still consider stability is the foremost objective when dealing with countries to the south. That is as opposed to the east, where they equate democracy with stability. This makes it more difficult to sustain the process of reform.»

While that has made the site of the body a difficult decision, its workings are being dogged by another problem that afflicted the old Barcelona Process: divisions over the Israeli-Palestinian problem.

The Barcelona Process Union for the Mediterranean includes both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, as well as their neighbors, and one issue blocking progress is whether the Arab League should have full representation (it was an observer in many meetings of the Barcelona Process).

There are also complex disputes over how to give the southern nations a stake in the process equal to the EU’s. Sarkozy’s idea was to have a two-year co-presidency, with one side drawn from the EU and the other from the south.

On the European side, France wants to have the job for two years, even though its rotating presidency of the EU ends Dec. 31.

Egypt is a candidate for the southern side, but given that the decision will need to be agreed on by both Israel and Syria, the choice is not straightforward. Nor are decisions on the nationality of permanent officials.

Ferrero-Waldner called for an emphasis on concrete projects that have been identified, like developing transport infrastructure and cleaning up the Mediterranean Sea.

But she acknowledged the problems that beset the Barcelona Process remain, particularly the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

«If it improves on the Barcelona Process, then so much the better,» Ferrero-Waldner said, «but there are also some difficulties that won’t go away from today to tomorrow.»

Some see the Barcelona Process Union for the Mediterranean as an example of what they call Sarkozy’s hyperactive brand of diplomacy, brimming with political energy but light on content. Others see a more optimistic scenario in which the initiative — alongside existing EU policies to cooperate with such eastern neighbors as Ukraine — creates a flexible framework allowing closer ties with those nations more interested in reform.

«The offer is more or less clear,» de Vasconcelos said, «that the advanced states — like Morocco or Israel — should have access to European programs. What is on offer is a kind of political stimulus, and a differentiated structure in which southern states that would like to develop deeper relationship with EU can do so.»

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DEL