Monday

21st Jun 2021

Opinion

Sarkozy's Mediterranean union plans should worry Brussels

  • "The main loser in all cases seem to be European policies concerning human rights and democracy" (Photo: EUobserver)

French president Nicolas Sarkozy's language about the Mediterranean Union (MU) is not lacking in rhetoric. In a much debated speech delivered in Morocco two weeks ago he referred to it as 'a dream of peace and justice, not of conquest' and a 'great dream of civilization'. However, for all these grand words, his ideas are lacking precision.

We are told that his MU will include all states adjacent to the Mediterranean Sea, that it will have an organizational structure similar to that of the former European Coal and Steel Community, and that it will expand cooperation in the fields of 'trade, energy, security, counterterrorism, immigration' and many more. At the same time, its relationship with the EU's own Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP) remains unclear. A conference in June 2008 is supposed to thrash out the details.

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Despite the apparent vagueness of his proposal, Mr Sarkozy's ideas have been talked up as the major foreign policy initiative of his Presidency. The importance of the project contrasts oddly with its lack of content. Given these facts, Mr Sarkozy's real intentions should be questioned. What is he hoping to achieve by establishing yet another multilateral organization in the Mediterranean? What might be the implications of this decision for Europe's troubled Mediterranean strategy?

Based on the available information, three mutually non-exclusive reasons might explain Mr Sarkozy's recent démarche in the Mediterranean; each carrying serious consequences for the EMP and Europe's Mediterranean partners.

1) Geopolitical: Seeking to exploit the US stalemate in Iraq and counter Chinese incursions into France's Mediterranean backyard, the MU might be intended to re-establish France's position in the region. Its aim, in this case, would be to advance Gaullist notions of grandeur and international rank, rather than contributing to a solution of regional problems.

If national independence and grandeur are the driving forces behind Mr Sarkozy's MU, the implications for the EMP are potentially dire. Establishing an institutional rival to the EMP would severely curtail Brussels capacity to formulate policies towards its Southern neighbours. Worse, it would enable them to play on these institutional rivalries to escape unpopular EU conditionality clauses.

Moreover, this scenario carries the real risk - intentional or unintentional - of a vertical split between the Union's Mediterranean countries and the rest of Europe. If furthering French prestige is indeed Mr Sarkozy's primary aim, the EU will inevitably suffer a loss of capacities and legitimacy, while contributing little to solving the problems of the region.

2) Economic: If economic considerations prevail, the MU is guaranteed to undercut the liberalizing drive of the EMP. France and Europe's Mediterranean states would be the first to lose from the establishment of a Free Trade Area of the Mediterranean, opening new competition in the agricultural sector and in strategic sectors – such as energy and defence - previously dominated by France.

The most likely consequence for the EMP would be a further stalling, if not permanent blockage, of a Free Trade Area of the Mediterranean. An intergovernmental MU, driven by economic considerations would also work against the EMP's emphasis on civil society dialogue.

However, an MU emphasizing investment and commerce might also have some positive effects on the southern Mediterranean. French promises of co-développement could stimulate much needed investment in the southern Mediterranean. At the same time, an economic union could further stimulate the integration of North African markets, widely regarded as a precondition for the establishment of a larger free trade area. If economic considerations dominate, the impact on the southern Mediterranean would therefore be mixed, while the capacities and legitimacy of the EMP would again be diminished.

3) National Security: Concerned about immigration and terrorism at home, Mr Sarkozy's primary intention for the MU might be to enhance French national security. In this case, the MU would focus on curbing immigration and lead to greater police and counterterrorism cooperation with the autocratic regimes of the southern Mediterranean.

Within the EU, the Commission and the Justice and Home Affairs pillar would be the greatest losers, resulting from a duplication of policies, and a clawing back of responsibilities by member states. While cracking down on immigration would be a hard sell for third country elites, an emphasis on police cooperation and counterterrorism measures would further diminish Europe's claim to defence of democracy and human rights in the southern Mediterranean.

Without adding much to the existing agenda, a focus on national security would have a negative impact for both EU competences and democratization of southern Mediterranean states.

Considering Mr Sarkozy's potential reasons for the establishment of a Mediterranean Union and their consequences leads us to draw a black picture. Far from being 'just' fluffy politics and empty rhetoric, it bears serious consequences for Euro-Mediterranean relations. Any combination of explanations would undermine EU competencies, without spelling any major improvements.

Worse, the main loser in all cases seem to be European policies concerning human rights and democracy. Restoring the Mediterranean dimension of the EU's foreign policy would be a laudable project indeed, but this would imply instilling a sense of ownership amongst Mediterranean countries. At present this scenario is not in sight. One can only hope that with the momentum created by Mr Sarkozy's proposal, those member states more attentive to their Southern neighbours will be motivated to come up with a comprehensive strategy to be adopted at the EU level.

Timo Behr is Altiero Spinelli Fellow of the Compagnia di San Paolo, SAIS Bologna Center of the Johns Hopkins University. Ruth Hanau Santini is Associate Fellow CEPS, Compagnia di San Paolo Research Fellow on Italian Foreign Policy at the SAIS Bologna Center of the Johns Hopkins University. The authors can be contacted at tbehr1@jhu.edu and ruth.hanau-santini@ceps.eu

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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