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PARIS, Jul 11 2008 (IPS) - The proposed Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) of 27 European Union countries and at least 13 countries from the Maghreb and Arab region may prove stillborn, analysts say.
On Jul. 13, 40 heads of state and government will gather in Paris to create the UfM, a body meant to coordinate environmental, trade and immigration policies. These leaders represent countries as disparate as Sweden and Tunisia democratically, and Germany and Mauritania economically.
Such contrasts, besides old antagonisms, have led many economists, political leaders and analysts to consider the difficulties for the new body insurmountable.
French economist Guillaume Duval says the disparities between the European Union members and the Maghreb countries, and the plan to transform the region into a free trade zone, are the main points of conflict.
“The creation of a free trade zone between the EU and the Maghreb countries is likely to open the southern and western Mediterranean shore even more to European multinationals, and increase the rural exodus in the Arab world into the cities, which are already overpopulated,” Duval told IPS.
Duval said some Eastern European members of the EU fear that this opening towards the Maghreb region would divert European financial resources and political attention from their region towards the Mediterranean basin.
The creation of the UfM was proposed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy as an upgrading of the Barcelona process, a cooperation initiative between the EU and 12 Maghreb countries launched in 1995. The process was meant to coordinate economic, security, immigration and justice policies on both sides of the Mediterranean. But the Barcelona process never really succeeded.
According to Sarkozy’s plan, the Barcelona process should now be opened to European countries that are not members of the EU, such as the former Yugoslavian republics and Albania, and include all southern and western Mediterranean countries, including Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
The non-EU member countries sending their leaders to the meeting in Paris are Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Albania, Montenegro, Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina. A representative from the Palestinian Authority will also attend.
Some Maghreb governments have already rejected the French proposal. Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi will not participate.
At a press conference in Tripoli Jul. 9, Gaddafi said the UfM “will divide the Arab and African nations. The EU has no right to go round the Arab League and the African Union, or to divide us.”
The Libyan leader said the plan aims to access Arab resources. “It is Europe which needs us and our resources. We ought to negotiate with them from a position of equal power.”
Gaddafi claimed also that the UfM is a way of forcing Arab countries to negotiate with Israel. The UfM, he said, would “increase the dangers of terrorism against the Muslim countries.”
Rudolph Chimelli, former diplomatic correspondent for the German daily Die Sueddeutsche Zeitung, and a widely respected analyst of the Arab world, agrees that the union would be unbalanced, to European advantage.
“The EU will most likely dictate the conditions under which the UfM shall function,” he wrote in an editorial comment Jul. 9. Furthermore, he said, even if the U.S. does not sit at the UfM table, it will influence it from the sidelines, because of its massive presence in the Arabic Peninsula, Iraq, and Israel.
“The U.S. has strategic positions in the Mideast region, from Iraq to Saudi Arabia, not to speak of Israel,” Chimelli added. Europe’s role in that region is marginal, at best.
More significant than Gaddafi’s outspoken rejection would be the absence of Jordan’s King Abdullah at the Paris ceremony. Considered in Europe a moderate Arab leader, Abdullah has announced that he cannot attend because he would be on a long planned vacation.
For Turkey, the UfM would be second best to full EU membership that it is seeking – with strong opposition from France. While confirming its participation, Turkish government sources said they had obtained “substantial concessions” from the French government on the UfM joint declaration to be signed Jul. 13.
Other Maghreb countries with bleak democratic credentials, such as Tunisia and Egypt, have also confirmed participation.
France has had to revise its own diplomatic agenda to accommodate Syria. Until very recently, the French government, along with the U.S., tried to isolate the Syrian regime for its alleged influence in the conflict in Lebanon.
Some analysts think the UfM is a good idea, but that Sarkozy has mismanaged it. German diplomats threatened to veto all French European projects for the second half of 2008 if France insisted on playing a lead role in the UfM. Similar opposition came from the Spanish government. France has EU presidency over the second half of this year.
The UfM can be “a great institution,” says Dominique Moïsi, senior adviser at the French Institute for International Relations. “It extends the logic of reconciliation to the Mediterranean and deals with the issues as ‘Europe’. But it has been badly mismanaged and presented, so as a result it may lead nowhere.”
Moïsi says the French attempt to make geography and its former colonial links to the Maghreb region the leading criteria for UfM “was the secret vice in the project. The Germans felt deeply offended and bruised by it, and it confirmed all the negative feelings they had about Sarkozy.”
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