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Sarkozy hails Arab "gesture of peace" as landmark summit begins

Latest update : 2008-07-13

Leaders from EU and Mediterranean rim countries gather in Paris for the launch of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s dream project, the Union for the Mediterranean.

View our special report on the Union for the Mediterranean. 


Some are sworn enemies, others deeply distrust each other, but leaders from the Middle East, Europe and north Africa are to sit down at the same table on Sunday after much diplomatic coaxing by President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The only no-show at the founding summit of the Union for the Mediterranean in Paris is Libyan President Moamer Kadhafi, who has assailed the new club as a European ploy to undermine Arab and African unity.

But such is the discord among the 43 presidents and prime ministers gathered for the summit that the Elysee palace has dropped plans for an official group photo.

"Forceps birth for the Mediterranean Union" is how Le Monde newspaper described the difficult diplomacy leading up to the launch of the union, Sarkozy's flagship project.

The new forum brings the 27 countries of the European Union together with Balkan, north African and Middle East nations including Israel to bolster cooperation in one of the world's most volatile regions.

All eyes will be on Syrian President Bashir al-Assad who stages a comeback to the international stage with his Paris visit and will find himself under the glass dome of the Grand Palais along with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Israel and Syria technically remain at war ever since the creation of the Jewish state in 1948, although they have moved to revive peace efforts through indirect talks, with Turkey as mediator.

France had floated the idea of a historic meeting between Assad and Olmert, but both sides rejected the move as premature.

French diplomats say the seating arrangement at the summit -- by alphabetical order -- will ensure that Israeli and Syrian leaders are kept well apart.

After being given a red-carpet welcome at the Elysee on Saturday, Assad said Syria and Lebanon had agreed to establish diplomatic relations, opening up embassies in each country's capitals for the first time since independence.

Arab countries, led by Algeria, also managed to secure guarantees in the final declaration of the founding summit that the Union will not allow a creeping normalization of ties with Israel.

"The leaders may be coming, but it doesn't necessarily mean they are ready to take part in a collective project," said Dorothee Schmid, an expert from the French Institute of International Relations.

With such a high-powered group of leaders in attendance, the summit nevertheless is seen as a diplomatic coup for Sarkozy despite much uncertainty about the new club's purpose.

After bowing to German demands that the new club be open to all EU members and not just Mediterranean rim countries as initially proposed, Sarkozy engaged in some last-minute cajoling to convince key players Turkey and Algeria to take part.

On the sidelines of the Group of Eight summit in Japan last week, Sarkozy meet with Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and later announced that the key regional player would be in Paris for the summit.

Bouteflika in turn announced that he would be making a state visit to France next year as Algeria prepares for presidential elections.

Sarkozy personally telephoned Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to try to reassure him that Turkey's membership in the Mediterranean club was no substitute for entry into the European Union.

A staunch opponent of Turkey's EU membership bid, Sarkozy raised suspicions in Ankara when he first proposed the new Mediterranean club during his presidential campaign last year.

Sarkozy dispatched his chief of staff Claude Gueant to Damascus to discuss the invitation with Assad, but a mission by the envoy to Tripoli failed to convince Kadhafi to turn up.

Egypt agreed to turn up after Sarkozy asked President Hosni Mubarak to co-chair the meeting, while a rivalry between Malta, Morocco and Tunisia to host the permanent offices of the grouping may have led Morocco's King Mohammed VI to stay away.


Date created : 2008-07-13