Back in February 2007 when he was still a presidential candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy launched the idea of a new political and economic entity dubbed the Mediterranean Union. The new organization would bring several countries from the south shore of the Mediterranean together with their European neighbours.
But this first version of the project failed to convince German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who suspected Sarkozy of wanting to create a political dynamic in the South that would compete with that of the European Union (EU).
From the ‘Mediterranean Union’ to the ‘Union for the Mediterranean’
Under the pressure of Germany, who didn’t want to be sidetracked and see its influence diminish, Sarkozy reviewed his proposal. Berlin’s expectations was that every single EU member be considered a full member of the new body (39 countries in total) and that the European Commission remained the driving force behind it. Over just a few meetings, the Mediterranean Union became the Union for the Mediterranean. A change in wording that was significant, says Baorhan Ghalioum, a professor of political sociology at the Sorbonne-Nouvelle University in Paris. "The new project, once amended on the basis of the changes asked by Merkel and the European Commission, is nothing else but an improved version of the Barcelona Process,” he said.
Ghalioun considers that the UFM’s economic ambitions aren’t up to the expectations of the populations that make it up. "The UFM can’t be reduced to a few technical projects such as the fight against pollution and the construction of a highway that would link the whole of North Africa,” he said. It was a strategic mistake to conceive the UFM project in such a unilateral way and without consulting its European partners, Ghalioun concluded.
North Africa in favour of the Sarkozy initiative
The countries of North Africa welcomed the Sarkozy initiative. Morocco sees many advantages, both economic and political. According to Jawad Kerkoudi, head of the Moroccan Institute on International Relations (IMRI), Morocco “would like the UFM to play an active role in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Morocco-Algeria rivalry over Moroccan Sahara.” On an economic level, “the UFM financial aid would be much appreciated,” he added.
Tunisia, which is well positioned to house the headquarters of the General Secretariat, supported the French idea from the very beginning. Algeria finally ended up maintaining its participation, a decision Sarkozy announced himself. Libya was the only one to react angrily at the project. Muammar Gaddafi called it “a humiliation of sorts.”
“We’re neither famished nor dogs for them to throw bones at us,” he declared.
“The Turkish headache”
Whether Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will come or not is one of the clues that France hasn’t yet managed to solve. Turkey has been engaged in negotiations to join the EU since 2005 and now sees the UFM as a way for France to close the door to it.
According to Hasni Abidi, head of the Geneva-based Centre for the Study and Research on the Arab World and the Mediterranean, “Turkey will never be content with a solution that amounts to a dead end instead of a full seat within the EU.”
Even if Sarkozy managed to convince more than 30 heads of state and government to take a seat beside Bashar al-Assad and Ehud Olmert, it doesn’t mean he succeeded, says Didier Peillon from the French Institute of International and Strategic Relations (IRIS.) “The UFM can’t go beyond the ambitions displayed by the Barcelona Process, in particular because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and of all the problems that belong to North Africa itself,” Peillon added. “The only positive aspect of the summit is that it prompted new debate on the Mediterranean,” he concluded.