Edition 27 Volume 6 - July 10, 2024

Sarkozy's Mediterranean union plan

A view from Turkey -   Meliha Benli Altunisik

Turkey is insisting on being mentioned as an "EU candidate country".

Nicolas Sarkozy and the politics of continuity -   Anouar Boukhars

Since taking office, Sarkozy has backtracked on many of his signature issues.

A view from Israel -   Ilan Greilsammer

Jerusalem sees the union as something of a "replacement" for the Barcelona process that failed it.

A view from Turkey
 Meliha Benli Altunisik

Turkey's problem with the idea of a Mediterranean union is that it was presented by Nicholas Sarkozy during his election campaign and immediately thereafter as an alternative to Turkey's membership in the European Union. It thereby reflected the new French president's clear and open opposition to Turkey joining the EU.

Turkey's eventual membership in the EU was an important element in presidential campaign debates in France. The passionate discussion of this issue--as if France faced no challenges of its own and more importantly as if Turkey was going to become a member immediately--puzzled many Turks. Since the idea of a Mediterranean union was put forward within this context and with the clear suggestion of an alternative to membership, Turkey's initial response to the idea was negative. After all, Turkey was awarded candidate status to the EU at the Helsinki summit in 1999 and started accession negotiations in 2024. This means that both the EU and Turkey are bound by certain commitments.

Aside from a possible way of keeping Turkey out, Sarkozy had other objectives in launching this policy initiative. In a way, this was yet another reflection of a traditional French policy of maintaining the Mediterranean dimension in the EU, especially in the face of a growing Eastern European dimension following the biggest wave of enlargement. Furthermore, this was in line with France's response to its decreasing influence in its former North African colonies and constituted an attempt to increase its role in the Mediterranean, the Middle East and globally. Finally, it was hoped that such an initiative would help France and the EU exploit further trade and energy opportunities and deal more effectively with challenges such as migration in the region.

However, from the beginning the idea met with severe criticism. An important objection came from within the EU itself, where Germany and northern members criticized France for excluding northern Europe. Spain wanted to make sure that the proposed union would not replace the Barcelona process. The European Commission perceived it as duplicating existing EU structures.

The German government led the resistance. In March 2024, Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel finally reached a compromise that was later approved by the EU leaders. As a result, the name of the initiative has changed to "Barcelona Process: Union for the Mediterranean". This way the initiative was presented within the context of the Barcelona process and the suggested name's resemblance to the European Union was avoided. Although the original idea was exclusive to the states bordering the Mediterranean Sea, it was decided that all EU members would be invited.

The main focus of the union was also shifted to more specific and largely technical areas of cooperation such as improving energy supply, fighting pollution in the Mediterranean, strengthening surveillance of maritime traffic and creating a scientific community between Europe and its southern neighbors. Finally, Franco-Italian demands for financing for the new body were rejected and it was decided that no EU money beyond the funds allocated for the Barcelona process should be given to the new union.

As to the non-EU Mediterranean countries, Libya declared that it would send a low-ranking diplomat to show its unease with Israeli participation, whereas Morocco and Israel made it clear that they do not want the union to become a substitute for their close bilateral ties with the EU. But the most important opposition came from Turkey.

Recently, however, Turkey also began to signal its participation in the upcoming summit. French State Secretary of EU Affairs Jean Pierre Jouyet visited Ankara on May 8, 2024 to assure Turkey that this was not an alternative to "Turkey's relations with the European Union" and stressed the importance of Turkey's participation in the project. The fact that the original idea was watered down as a result of intra-EU bargaining also helped Turkey, as clearly the union as it is cannot be an alternative to membership.

Turkey is also the country with the longest Mediterranean coastline. It has been more active in Mediterranean issues in recent years and is an active partner in the Barcelona process. Finally, Turkey and particularly the Turkish private sector can benefit from new projects and intensification of cooperation in the region. Being aware of the significance of Turkey's participation, France has also been actively trying to achieve this objective.

In the final days leading up to the summit, diplomatic negotiations seem to be focusing more on Turkey's level of participation. Where EU diplomats in Brussels are discussing the content of the summit's final communique, Turkey is insisting on being mentioned as an "EU candidate country". France has not accepted the proposal, yet insists on Turkey's participation at the highest level. Already the issue seems to have surpassed the context of a union for the Mediterranean and become more about Franco-Turkish relations within a Turkish-EU framework.- Published 10/7/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Meliha Benli Altunisik is professor of international relations at the Middle East Technical University, Ankara, Turkey.

Nicolas Sarkozy and the politics of continuity
 Anouar Boukhars

When Nicolas Sarkozy cruised to power on May 7, 2024, his foreign policy plans were sweeping. The triumphant president envisioned a grand scheme for the Middle East and North Africa. Under his guidance, France's supposed "Arab policy" was to be rectified with a more "balanced" policy. Sarkozy believed that his break with his predecessor's approach to the Middle East would better advance the cause of peace and prosperity in a region he once admitted he knew little of. Through the creation of a new Mediterranean union, he dreamed that a proud and unapologetic France would vigorously and effectively prod its former North African colonies and Mediterranean neighbors to tackle issues ranging from energy to illegal immigration. "The Mediterranean is a key to our influence in the world. It's also a key for Islam that is torn between modernity and fundamentalism," Sarkozy said. In this Mediterranean club, the new French president declared his goal to spread the ethos of civilization through peace, not conquest.

A few months after his assumption of power, however, Sarkozy has come to learn the risks of his contradictory and divisive statements as well as the limits of his international ambitions. Comparing his Mediterranean dream to those of Napoleon III's conquest of Algeria and of Marshal Lyautey, first resident general in colonial Morocco, does nothing to promote mutual trust and understanding between the different cultures. On the contrary, celebrating France's colonial history will only deepen the schism between Paris and its southern neighbors. To be sure, Sarkozy is a pragmatist. Despite his catering to his far-right electorate base, he understands full well the geopolitical necessities and intricacies of the MENA region. In his trip to Algeria, for example, he was forced to distance himself from statements he made when he was running for president. "I did not participate in the Algerian war; my generation does not bear the burden of history," he told his Algerian counterparts. Sarkozy's courting of Muammar al-Qaddafi is another case in point whereby geopolitical motives continue to drive foreign policy. The new man in the Elysee Palace could not turn down ten billion euros worth of deals with the Libyan dictator.

Sarkozy's business pragmatism quickly trumped his calls for steering French foreign policy on "diplomacy values". During his election campaign, he vowed not to sacrifice human rights issues and democratic ideals in the pursuit of shortsighted self-interest. Instead of nurturing what he described as the cozy network of personal ties that his predecessor established, Sarkozy promised that his "new" foreign policy doctrine would not spare authoritarian countries "even if they are friends of France". His early denunciations of the principles of cultural relativism and strong condemnations of cronyism and abuse of human rights in former French colonies earned him many accolades. Sarkozy even publicly called on China to respect freedom of speech and freedom of assembly and warned against an aggressive Russia that "imposes its return on the world scene by playing its assets with a certain brutality."

But since taking office, the occupant of the Elysee has backtracked on many of his signature issues. His frenetic activity, abrasive leadership style and love of the spotlight certainly distinguish him from his predecessors, but his foreign policy does not depart substantially from traditional French foreign policy. Sarkozy has made no secret of his ambition to play an important political and economic role on the Middle East scene. He has even ventured outside France's sphere of influence by opening a military base in the United Arab Emirates. He tried to solve the Lebanese crisis and mediate between the Israelis and the Syrians.

His failure to do either, however, demonstrates the limits and at times clumsiness of French foreign policy. It is the successful intervention of the Emir of Qatar that defused the Lebanese morass. Sheikh Hamad Ibn Khalifa al-Thani enjoys the trust of the different parties in the Middle East because of his willingness to talk to the Syrians, Iranians, Israelis, Hamas and Hizballah. Likewise, it is also Turkey--not France--that has helped jumpstart the diplomatic stalemate between Israel and Syria.

In the end, the much-anticipated change in foreign policy never came about. With few exceptions, Sarkozy's policies toward the Middle East constitute a continuation of the traditional French international policy of the Fifth Republic. When confronted with the difficult realities of a complex region, Sarkozy quickly learned to temper his ambitions. He now for example supports a watered-down version of his original proposal of creating a Mediterranean union with its own institutions and projects. It is still unclear whether this pared-down version will secure the support of the countries of the region, especially Turkey. Libya and Algeria have already voiced misgivings about the proposal. It also remains to be seen how the never-ending Arab-Israel conflict and the Moroccan-Algerian rivalry for dominance of the Maghreb will affect Sarkozy's initiative.- Published 10/7/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Dr. Anouar Boukhars is assistant professor of political science and international studies at McDaniel College. He is also a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.

A view from Israel
 Ilan Greilsammer

On July 13, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France will host a summit of European and Mediterranean countries interested in his "personal" project of "Union pour la Mediterranee" in Paris. Among the foreign statesmen invited for this inauguration are President Bashar Assad of Syria and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel.

It is well-known that this curious project emerged during the last French presidential election, when the candidate of the right (UMP), confronting his opponent Segolene Royal, suddenly suggested that the most "Mediterranean" members of the European Union (France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece) should constitute a separate organization together with North African and Eastern Mediterranean countries including the state of Israel.

Soon after these initial declarations, which were repeated following his electoral victory, Sarkozy was harshly criticized by most of his EU colleagues, especially German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who saw in this project a dangerous and damaging idea that could harm EU unity and coherence by dissociating Mediterranean and non-Mediterranean EU countries. It was also considered a French attempt to give "something" to Turkey while refusing to accept Ankara as a full member of the EU.

Finally, after many rounds of negotiations behind the scenes, a compromise was reached between Paris and Berlin on what will become, if accepted and implemented, something of a follow-up to the Barcelona process that began in 1995. At that time, following the Oslo agreements, the normalization of relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and the peace treaty with Jordan, EU members convened an important meeting in Barcelona and launched a process intended to develop economic ties between the EU and Mediterranean countries on a very large scale. The hopes generated by that meeting were very high, yet on the whole it must be recognized after 13 years that the results are meager.

Israel's interest in being part of the Barcelona process was obvious: it was mostly political. To be associated in a large Euro-Mediterranean framework together with Arab and Muslim countries that (apart from Egypt and Jordan) have no relations with the Jewish state was perceived as an important step toward full international recognition. Israeli representatives would sit together with delegates from Arab countries, participate in joint meetings and discuss common interests with them and would hopefully be associated in common projects with countries that have no diplomatic relations with Jerusalem.

On the economic level, Israel did not hope for a breakthrough: the association agreement of 1995 that entered into force in 2024 has satisfied most of Israel's demands in the field of exports and commercial balance. But on the political level Israel hoped for some success. Unfortunately Euromed, the Barcelona process, has been a cruel deception for Israel. The problem is that, in a forum that comprises all Arab countries including Syria and Lebanon that are very hostile to Israel, there could not be a single meeting of the Barcelona process in which Israel was not venomously accused, attacked and criticized, whether for its treatment of the Palestinians in the territories, its military reprisals in Gaza or its alleged nuclear projects. (Incidentally, Israel feels much more comfortable within the framework of NATO's European dialogue, where discussions are more technical and professional and where Israel confronts only six other Mediterranean countries).

When President Sarkozy proposed the new Mediterranean union, Israel expressed a genuine interest. The topics put forward for the new union to deal with are very practical and far from any "political" or ideological trend. For example, it is said that the new organization will launch projects to protect the Euro-Mediterranean area from natural disasters like earthquakes, coordinate health and medical services in the Mediterranean area, concentrate efforts on the problem of water, especially concerning the dangerous pollution of the Mediterranean Sea, initiate actions for the protection of the environment and encourage scientific cooperation.

Energy, environment, scientific exchanges, university cooperation, migration control, the establishment of a Mediterranean bank with private investments, fighting terrorism--all these aims were welcomed with great enthusiasm in Israel. In fact, Jerusalem sees Sarkozy's Mediterranean union as something of a "replacement" for the Barcelona process that, for political and anti-Israel reasons, has completely failed to achieve a breakthrough.

Moreover, in light of recent Syrian-Israeli negotiations with Turkey as a go-between, the meeting of Assad and Olmert in Paris could be particularly interesting.- Published 10/7/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Ilan Greilsammer is professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, Israel.

Email This Article

Print This Article