A new Union for the Mediterranean was officially launched in Paris last Sunday, with French President Nicholas Sarkozy claiming it would help bring about peace and stability.
Actually, he was rather more romantic: 'The purpose of the Mediterranean summit, of this union for the Mediterranean, is that people learn to love each other in the Mediterranean region instead of keeping on hating each other, and fighting each other.'
Sarko's love-in was attended by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who added to their holiday snaps by posing together, as well as Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad. This was the first meeting he'd had with Olmert, although he quietly slipped out of the room before having to listen to his Israeli counterpart.
Despite the hype, though the new club of nations is far from a new proposal. In fact, the Union for the Mediterranean is the latest of several attempts to formalize relations between the European Union and its neighbours to the South and East.
It was devised by Sarkozy as a key pillar of the French EU presidency, which runs until the end of the year.
The new Union overlaps with an earlier EU proposal for cooperation in the Mediterranean region, officially called the 'Barcelona Process'.
But suspicions are widespread to French motives for proposing the new club of nations.
Turkey has long expressed its reservations about the plan – seeing moves towards a Union of the Mediterranean as a manouvre by Sarkozy to block its entry into the European Union (and with good reason).
The Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi boycotted the summit, claiming that the new Union was a ‘neo-colonialist’ attempt to reassert French influence in North Africa.
Beyond this posturing, however, the move towards a new Mediterranean Union is driven more by economic concerns than by grand intentions to build peace in the region.
Its formation has sparked up internal rivalry within the European Union, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel seeing it as an attempt by France designed mainly to advance its own economic and political interests in North Africa.
In response, Merkel won some concessions. The European Commission, which has so far spent 16 billion euros since 1995 on the ‘Barcelona process’ will limit its funding for the new Mediterranean union to 7.5 billion euros until 2013.
This package was agreed alongside a pledge to dedicate more funding to the EU’s eastern relationships – in which Germany has a stronger interest. Germany is the largest contributor to the EU budget.
Both policies, in fact, overlap with a more broad-ranging European Union Neighbourhood Policy to promote free trade and control migration into the 27-member bloc.
As part of this strategy the European Union is building detention centres to lock up migrants in Libya – as part of a cooperation agreement that critics have called a ‘Fortress Europe’ strategy.
The EU is also pursuing a series of bilateral trade agreements with Africa, aimed at opening up markets for European-based corporations. Trade between the EU and its Mediterranean neighbours amounted to 120 billion euros in 2006, with EU-based multinational companies the main beneficiaries.
In fact, the most immediate objective effect of the new Mediterranean union is the promotion of a series of investment projects – in water management, sea purification and nuclear energy – which are most likely to help French companies acquire lucrative new contracts in the region. And that's an idea that Sarkozy truly loves.