Monday, September 1, 2014
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Two and a Half Cheers for the Mediterranean Union

Maybe it is time to be a bit more generous to French President Nicolas Sarkozy and look at the outcome of what he does rather than the way that he does it.

The original launch of the Mediterranean Union almost sank the whole enterprise. Appearing to speak without giving the issue much thought, Sarkozy initially proposed a club of European and mostly Arab states along the Mediterranean’s shore. It would have been in essence a French-run enterprise that the rest of Europe would have paid for. This did not go down well, particularly with the Germans.

There was also a strong suspicion that the French were trying to find a way to buy off Turkey with a relationship falling well short of European Union membership.

So the auguries for an attempt to revitalize Europe’s relationship with its Mediterranean partners were not good. But by the time of the grand Paris Summit in July to send the new club on its way, the initial suspicions had largely been overcome. Sarkozy bowed to his European critics and enjoyed a diplomatic triumph. We shall soon see whether there is substance to the initiative, or whether it is just a coat of fresh paint on an old and tired idea.

The original Barcelona Process, launched in 1995, was an excellent scheme. Intended to provide an economic and political backdrop to peace-making through confidence-building in the Middle East, it was an admirable recognition of Europe’s historical, commercial, cultural, and political ties with its neighbors to the south of the sea which has brought us all together over the years.

There were aspirations for a free-trade area by 2010. There were pledges of political integration based on shared values. There were people-to-people links. There was a forum where Israelis and their long-term Arab foes could sit together and discuss other matters than the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. There was a development budget. And there were meetings. So many meetings.

The effort was far from worthless. Development projects were funded through grants or cheap loans, and these have probably played at least some part in increasing the attractiveness of the Maghreb and the Mashraq to foreign investors. There was some lowering of agricultural and other tariffs by the EU. Dialogue on political reform, and euros to support it, helped further the process in some countries, notably Morocco and Jordan. There was some co-operation on common problems like drugs and illegal immigration.

But, as a significant component of Europe’s policy toward its most crucial neighbors, the successes of the Barcelona Process were modest: a great idea on the launch pad had difficulty getting off the ground.

So Sarkozy deserves at least two and a half cheers for trying to revitalize it. But if the Mediterranean Union is to achieve more than was managed in its first manifestation, a number of things will need to happen.

First, Europe is better at talking about free-trade areas than delivering free trade. For example, there are still too many barriers to agricultural trade between the North and the South. And guess which country leads the opposition to any significant opening up of European agriculture. Step forward, France, and take a bow.

Second, however slow we have been in opening up a real Mediterranean market, the barriers to freer trade between Arab League countries are just as great.

Third, it was excellent that in Paris Sarkozy began the process of bringing Syria in out of the diplomatic cold. We must also hope that his attempts to act as a peace-broker between West Bank Palestinians and Israel are blessed with success.

But the truth is that Europe, for all the gallant efforts of Javier Solana, has been absent from serious politics in the Middle East. We have not dared to cross America. A largely non-existent European policy toward the region has been dictated by the absentee monopolists of policy in Washington.

Europe should get more seriously involved, even at the risk of occasionally irritating America, which may be less likely to happen once the Bush administration is history. For a start, we should recognize that there will be no political settlement in Palestine without including Hamas. What would incredibly have been former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s first visit to Gaza in his first year of peace-making had to be canceled recently because of security concerns. Enough said.

Finally, Europe has to decide how serious it is about all the admirable stuff in the Barcelona Process on pluralism, civil society, the rule of law, and democracy.

Is Europe serious that a shared concept of human rights should be one of the foundations of our Mediterranean partnership? If so, what are we in Europe proposing to do about it? If this is just blah-blah, better not say it. We discredit ourselves and important principles when we say things that we do not mean.

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