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A Mediterranean Rendezvous

Author: Lee Hudson Teslik
Updated: July 14, 2008

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Nicolas Sarkozy is nothing if not ambitious. The French president wants to overhaul his country's economic and military policies, redefine how Europe thinks about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and collective defense, and set things right in several former French colonies in North Africa and the Middle East. Sarkozy's latest project melds some of these objectives. Having recently assumed the presidency of the European Union, Sarkozy pushed through an idea he first broached the night he was elected—a Union for the Mediterranean (EurActiv), which formally came into existence July 13.

The aim of the new body, Sarkozy says, is to bind a diverse group of twenty-seven EU countries and seventeen North African and Middle Eastern states into a more coherent bloc. The hope is that the alliance will help members of the union to navigate shared concerns (CSMonitor) including immigration, counterterrorism, the environment, and economic development. The plan has had its skeptics. Germany balked when it seemed France might be moving to form a bloc that would rival the European Union without consulting Berlin. Turkey dragged its feet (Turkish Daily News) on approving the plan until it got full assurance from France that doing so would not affect its EU admission process. Britain's foreign minister (who supports Turkish accession) emphasized the point (EUBusiness), saying the Mediterranean Union "is not, repeat not, an alternative to enlargement of the EU."

Even so, it remains to be seen what the union will be able to accomplish. With such a wide-ranging group of member states—from Spain to Libya to Mauritania to Jordan (the last two don't even border the Mediterranean)—a cohesive policy agenda seems unlikely. The union's objectives, skeptics say, are broad to the point of being unwieldy. Sarkozy hopes to head off Islamic militarism in North Africa, but Libya's leader Muammar Qaddafi, who is shunning the summit, says the bloc's formation will accomplish the opposite (Telegraph). Sarkozy hopes the union will stem illegal boat migration and human smuggling from Africa, but the Economist notes in a recent blog series from Mauritania that this goal is loaded with complications.

Analysts also question how the group will function in practice. The Financial Times says Sarkozy's blueprints have avoided critical questions about logistics, or how Muslim nations in North Africa and the Middle East will interact with their European counterparts—not to mention Israel. Financing for the bloc is yet another sticking point. Some money will come from the European Union, but other funding is meant to come from member states, some of which remain tepid about the very premise of the group.

The union's formation also raises a more basic question—what exactly is gained by founding a new bloc? The Economist, in a recent cover story, says global institutions have devolved into an "outdated muddle." Clubs—whether regional (ASEAN, EU, AU, SAARC), cultural/linguistic (Arab League, OIC), economic (IMF, World Bank), trade focused (Mercosur, OPEC, or, more broadly, the WTO), or military/security focused (NATO, SCO, OSCE), not to mention the bewildering array of "G" clubs (G7, G8, G11, G20, G33)—have proliferated in recent decades. Yet the result, the Economist says, has not necessarily been better governance. The FT's Gideon Rachman parodies "ineffectual international organizations" in a recent blog post, saying they often speak grandiosely on issues they have no power to influence. None of this minimizes the pressing issues faced by Mediterranean countries. It will be a feat, however, if Sarkozy is able to align competing interests and push through policy change in such a diverse forum.

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