EU leaders agree to weakened Mediterranean Union plan

14.03.08 @ 09:14

  1. By Elitsa Vucheva

BRUSSELS - EU leaders on Thursday (13 March) approved a watered-down version of a plan put forward by French President Nicolas Sarkozy for a grand Mediterranean Union stretching from Morocco to Turkey and aiming to foster cooperation with the EU's southern neighbours.

  • Mr Sarkozy - happy that his proposal "was taken up with great enthusiasm" (Photo: The Council of the European Union)

Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa called the proposal an "upgrade of the Barcelona process" – the mechanism currently regulating the relations between the EU and the Mediterranean countries – and said it had received support during the EU leaders' meeting in Brussels.

"It is now a question of working on this in different forums. It's now a question of doing what is needed so that this project can see the light of day," he said.

An agreement was reached to launch the project as soon as possible, "with the principle that all member states will participate," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso also said.

A formal decision to "transform the Barcelona Process into a Union for the Mediterranean" is expected to be taken on Friday (14 March), Mr Sarkozy told journalists late on Thursday night.

After strongly criticising Mr Sarkozy's original version of the plan, which was only to involve certain EU member states but be funded by EU money, Germany gave its support, allowing the project to go ahead after Paris agreed a milder all inclusive version of the plan.

"We are in favour of further developing the Barcelona process," German chancellor Angela Merkel said on her arrival at a traditional gathering of conservative leaders prior to the summit, as it "was slowing down and must be revitalised," the German leader added.

Both countries agreed on a compromise last week during a meeting in Hanover.

Mr Sarkozy praised the efficiency of the "Franco-German axis" and said he had passed a "very happy moment hearing Ms Merkel defending the Mediterranean project as she did [during the meeting]".

Mr Sarkozy also rejected claims that his initial proposal had been considerably weakened, saying that it was not very different from what was eventually agreed upon.

There is still one secretariat, a joint north-south presidency, and periodical summit meetings foreseen, so "I do not think I have renounced anything," he said, adding that he was happy the principle of a closer partnership with the Mediterranean countries "was taken up with great enthusiasm" by the other member states, as the "Barcelona [process] simply did not work".

Cool reception by some

The proposal sparked ideas for other EU states as well, with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk saying that the EU should now commit more to eastern states, particularly Ukraine, which should be given a clear European perspective.

"We accept this agreement in general, but we also have our own proposal about Ukraine," he said.

Meanwhile, Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek said that key points, such as what exactly the role of the new Mediterranean set up would be, remained unanswered and suggested the French president was working to reach national goals above all.

"It is obvious that Sarkozy wants to make a name for himself during the French presidency and is focusing on a subject in which he has an economic interest," Mr Topolanek was quoted as saying by CNN.

For his part, European Parliament President Hans-Gert Poettering underlined that MEPs also want to be involved.

He expressed "amazement" that "up to now, the parliamentary component of the Barcelona Process, the Euro-Mediterranean Parliamentary Assembly, has been completely ignored in the proposals."

"The European Parliament is equally astonished that a decision appears to have been taken to convene a summit in Paris on 13 July, without parliament being mentioned as a participant. I hope this was a mere technical oversight," he added.

The details of the plan are to be worked out by June, before a summit on 13 July in Paris under the French EU presidency, which would formally launch the Union for the Mediterranean.

The fledgling union is to involve some 39 countries - the EU's 27 members and around 12 southern states, such as Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Israel, Syria and Turkey.