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Why Europeans Should Embrace the Idea of a Mediterranean Union

European Spring Council on March 13-14, 2008

Almut Möller is currently a DAAD / AICGS Fellow (American Institute For Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University, Washington). This essay appeared in the March 21, 2008, AICGS Advisor.

22.03.2008 · Almut Möller

At its European Spring Council on March 13-14, 2008, the European Union approved the principle of a "Union for the Mediterranean." Pushed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is preparing to take over the rotating EU presidency in July, the heads of state and government agreed to discuss the perspective of giving its "Barcelona Process" (adopted in 1995) a fresh boost by transforming it into a "Union for the Mediterranean" that would comprise the twenty-seven EU member states and twelve of its Mediterranean neighbors. In the official Council conclusions the European Commission is asked to draft proposals for details of a 'Med Union' for a summit dedicated to the project that will convene in Paris on July 13, 2008.

In the run-up to the French Presidential elections in early 2007, Sarkozy had proposed the idea of a Mediterranean Union and has followed up the idea since being elected into office. Sarkozy's initial idea was to bind the EU member states with an immediate coastline on the Mediterranean, and with an interest in enhanced cooperation, closer to their neighbors on the southern shores of the Mediterranean. He put forward the idea of closer cooperation in the fields of energy, security, counter-terrorism, illegal migration, and investment and trade. Although the idea of such a union is not new, it sparked diverse reactions. While welcomed by some countries on both sides of the Mediterranean, it has also been harshly criticized. Amongst others, the German government rejected the idea of creating a union in which only a selected number of EU member states would participate. EU member states with a greater interest in strengthening the European Union's ties with its new eastern neighbors feared EU budgets slowly moving south. Turkey, currently negotiating accession to the European Union and envisaged as a member of the Med Union in the French plan, saw its EU membership perspective undermined by the suggestion of a "second class" Med Union membership. Other potential members on the southern shores of the Mediterranean were equally reluctant in their reactions. Some European member states accused President Sarkozy of pushing forward national interests by using the EU's structures and funding.

What was interesting to observe about the debate throughout 2007 and the beginning of 2008 was that it lacked a lot of substance, and against this background the debate was conducted in a surprisingly confrontational manner. It is also quite striking that despite all criticism, the issue has now been officially put on the European agenda by all twenty-seven member states. The determination of Paris to put it on the list for its 2008 EU presidency has certainly been a factor here. Another reason has clearly been that the EU member states increasingly see the need to put their relations with the neighboring region on a new footing.

The week before the European Spring Council meeting, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Sarkozy ended a period of Franco-German controversy during Sarkozy's visit to Germany. Germany, one of France's strongest critics on the Med Union plan, gave up its resistance - but with an important concession: the union will have to comprise all EU member states, and not just the coastal members, in order to avoid a multiple-speed Europe and the risk of a split of the EU. Apparently, the Franco-German tandem is back. Its famous mechanism that once diverging French and German positions can be reconciled, the rest of the EU follows, has proven to work again on the idea of the Med Union. It will be interesting to observe how positions will evolve as the principle declaration will be beefed up in the weeks to come in the run-up to the July summit in Paris.

Whatever the project on the Med Union that is hoped to be adopted in the summer of 2008 will look like, and whether it will be adopted with sufficient substance at all, there is one crucial reason why Europeans should embrace the idea of the Med Union: it brings back an essential debate on how the enlarged European Union and its member states should organize its future relations with its southern neighbors. The EU's initiatives so far have not proven particularly effective, and both the European Union and the Middle East/ North Africa region have seen fundamental shifts over the last ten years.

When the European Union launched its Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (the "Barcelona Process") in 1995, the regional environment was a different one. The Oslo Agreements suggested that there was a prospect of peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and this, it was thought, would decrease tensions and bring new dynamics across the region. The Barcelona Process was conceived in a spirit of optimism. With its broadly-based concept of economic, political, security and cultural interchange between the two sides of the Mediterranean, the European Union sought to make a contribution to regional stability by opening up the Middle East and North Africa in political and economic terms.

Ten years down the road, however, such hopes have not materialized. Against the background of the new "securitized" European agenda dominated by terrorism, illegal migration and energy security issues, the Barcelona Process and the southern dimension of the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), another strand of cooperation which was developed in the wake of eastern and southern enlargement in 2004, look like relics from a different era. Many critics have complained about their lack of effectiveness. A whole series of programs, initiatives, action plans and meetings of various kinds have revealed a lack of prioritization and the fact that as time went on, the Barcelona Process and the ENP tended to overlap. Furthermore, the ENP suffers from the impractical combination of an eastern and southern dimension within a single policy approach.

The concept of medium- and long-term engagement and multiple forms of cooperation in order to stabilize the neighboring MENA region is certainly wise. However, it seems advisable to become more focused in order to avoid diluting Euro-Mediterranean initiatives to the point where they have no real impact, and to create incentives on both sides for a stronger commitment to cooperation.

Europe needs a genuine foreign policy debate that reassesses vital European interests in the Middle East and North Africa region in order to develop a comprehensive approach. There needs to be a clear understanding at the European level about why, where, how and with whom the EU should engage in the region. It is therefore high time to reevaluate the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership and the southern dimension of the ENP and to correct their conceptual flaws.

Against this background it is worth considering the idea of a Mediterranean Union, and to do it in the most open and diverse manner possible. This means that the concept of differentiated integration, as initially put forward by President Sarkozy, should also be considered in the debates. Faced with the increasingly divergent views of the twenty-seven EU member states about where and how to become involved, the idea of a core group approach towards the Mediterranean has a certain appeal, since it could bring together countries which have a vital interest in cooperation. However, the impact that this kind of external differentiation might have needs to be assessed rather carefully. A Mediterranean Union would not only be an example of a kind of multi-speed Europe that could easily negate the EU's efforts to make its foreign policy more coherent. If taken seriously, it would also need to carefully reconcile the dual structures of the Barcelona process and the southern ENP dimension to merge them into a new focused and inclusive concept.

There is room for all kinds of ideas on what such a Mediterranean Union would look like. This is where the real value of the European Spring Council decision is: to spark a debate. Academics, think tanks and civil society on both sides of the Mediterranean should not leave this debate to governments.

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