Sarkozy's 'Club Med' summit challenges EU


FRANCE:The French president's idea for a new 'union' has ruffled diplomatic feathers, writes Lara Marlowein Paris

FRENCH PRESIDENT Nicolas Sarkozy has called tomorrow's Paris Summit for the Mediterranean "The best news for peace in the Middle East."

Before the summit even started, the French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner declared the gathering "a historic success". Speaking in Egypt, Ireland's foreign minister Micheál Martin called the meeting "an important initiative, and one we support strongly".

For the first time, all states with a Mediterranean shoreline will gather, along with the EU 27, under the glass dome of the Grand Palais in central Paris. Forty-one of the 44 heads of state and government who were invited will attend - itself no small feat. The Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert will sit in the same room with Arab leaders, who may nonetheless refuse to be photographed with him.

The biggest diplomatic coup for Sarkozy - one that is far from certain - would be a bi-lateral meeting on the sidelines of the summit between Olmert and the Syrian president Bachar al-Assad.

The invitation to Assad has been the most controversial aspect of the summit, because the Syrian leader is suspected of complicity in the 2005 assassination of the Lebanese leader Rafik al-Hariri, and has imprisoned hundreds of his political opponents.

The former president Jacques Chirac and French blue helmets (58 of whose comrades were killed in a 1983 attack linked to Damascus) have protested against Sarkozy's rehabilitation of Assad. The Lebanese community in Paris last night demonstrated against his visit.

Sarkozy justifies inviting Assad on the grounds that Syria recently resumed 'back-channel' negotiations with Israel via Turkey, and Syria agreed to the Doha accord that enabled Lebanon to elect a president.

Finally, Sarkozy argues, by engaging with Syria, Europe can lure Assad away from his Iranian allies. Despite high-blown talk of peace, the projects to be discussed during the afternoon-long summit are concrete, and have no immediate bearing on the Israeli-Arab conflict.

There is consensus on cleaning up the Mediterranean, which is in danger of becoming a dead sea within 15 years. But earlier agreements, in 1978 and 2005, have not reduced pollution. Two-thirds of coastal cities dump untreated sewage into its waters.

The assembled leaders are also expected to discuss the distribution of water resources, student exchanges, solar energy, "sea highways" to replace lorry routes along the coast and civil defence for natural disasters.

Ambitious as this may seem, the summit is a far cry from the "Mediterranean Union" that Sarkozy promised during his election campaign.

The union was the brainchild of his special advisor and speech-writer Henri Guaino. In Toulon in February 2007, Sarkozy said he wanted "to be the president of a France that will set the Mediterranean on the path of its reunification, after 12 centuries of division . . ." He wanted "to achieve a new Renaissance . . . undertake with this project a policy of civilisation as envisioned by the philosophers of the Enlightenment."

In Tangiers last October, Sarkozy said: "Within every man and woman who lives on the shores of the Mediterranean sleeps the memory, nostalgia, for the unity lost 15 centuries ago."

Not since the Italian dictator Mussolini revived the ancient Roman concept of Mare Nostrum ("our sea" in Latin) has a politician held such high ambitions for the Mediterranean.

But Sarkozy forgot to consult his European partners. The German chancellor Angela Merkel objected to Sarkozy's desire to relegate EU members without a Mediterranean shoreline to "observer" status, and saw the plan as a French attempt to create a 19th century-style zone of influence.

Tension over the Mediterranean plan came to a head in Hanover on March 3rd, where Merkel refused to allow the creation of a Mediterranean "union" to rival the EU.

At the EU Council in mid-March, Sarkozy was forced to downgrade his project to "a new impetus to the process inaugurated at Barcelona in 1995".

The Barcelona 'Euromed' partnership was supposed to build on the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian Oslo peace accords, which floundered and died. Euromed has little to show for some €5 billion in EU aid to southern Mediterranean countries.

Sarkozy managed to salvage some institutional features of his original plan: a rotating two-year co-presidency to be shared by one northern and one southern country; bi-annual summits and a permanent secretariat for the "Union for the Mediterranean".

France and Egypt will be the first co-presidents. Jealous of its prerogatives, the European Commission takes a dim view of the secretariat, which could be based in Tunis, Cairo or Rabat.

Spain has agreed to allow France to remove the name "Barcelona" from the project's name, on condition that Barcelona host the secretariat.