30th Mar 2020


How the Union for the Mediterranean will work

  • "The EU should stop looking at its Southern periphery as the chimerical 'Mediterranean'" (Photo: EUobserver)

Ever since Nicolas Sarkozy tried to bulldoze his plans for a Mediterranean Union into the European debate, the new scheme seems to have made the headlines mostly for the amount of bashing it has received. Yet, if the initiative has a shot at working, it is for reasons that are both the same and completely the opposite of those initially dreamed up by the French.

Sarkozy had envisioned something that would do to the Mediterranean what Monnet and Schuman did to Europe in the 1950s: a bold integration initiative of which "our children will be proud." July 13th, when the plan is to be officially launched, is supposed to be "the day when all of us will have to meet history." That this inspired rhetoric has fallen on deaf ears is an understatement. European capitals, most notably Berlin, politely turned down the original idea on at least three counts: it was feared it would further weaken the common EU foreign policy; it was regarded as a surrogate for Turkey's EU membership bid; and it was seen as a potential competitor to the European Union itself.

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After some wrangling among key EU member states, the baton has since passed to the European Commission, which unveiled its proposal in May. At face value, the Commission has been forced into the EU's characteristic institutional overkill. The new initiative will be embedded in the existing framework, the so-called Barcelona process. It will complement and upgrade its ongoing work. Its new official name: 'Barcelona Process: Union for the Mediterranean.'

A diverse bunch of unruly neighbours

Even diluted as it now is, this new enterprise is still an inevitable outcome of the most serious flaws of the EU's Mediterranean policy. For over a decade, the EU has chased a quixotic, comprehensive rapprochement with a diverse bunch of unruly neighbours spanning from Morocco to Jordan. The Barcelona process, after all, is modelled on the three-basket architecture of the 1975 Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Yet, the Middle East and North Africa have hardly moved closer the political standards that the EU has timidly sought to promote. Authoritarian regimes in the South appear as resilient as ever. The Middle East stagnates in its perilous stalemate. Most worryingly, the vision of a single Mediterranean space umbilically bound to the EU by historical ties and economic interdependence has been trumped by the prevalent European perception of its Southern backyard as the prime source of illegal migration, fundamentalism and terror.

This sorry record can explain why recent initiatives in the region go in the direction of a diversification and devolution of EU policies. The European Neighbourhood Policy has added a bilateral dimension to the cumbersome deals that the EU had sealed with its Southern counterparts under the Barcelona regime. Europe has called (without much success so far) for a more substantial South-South cooperation among North African and Middle Eastern countries. Faced with the longstanding paralysis of the political dialogue, the EU has placed more emphasis on the cultural and social realm of its policies.

Gradual devolution

Also, in light of the present post-Irish referendum gloom, the Union for the Mediterranean represents another step in the direction of this gradual devolution. The new initiative will focus on specific projects in areas such as energy, environment, and transports. Its secretariat will effectively be a technical office for project coordination. It will be chaired by two rotating consul-like figures, one from Europe and one from a North African country. But it is more logical to imagine these personalities speaking for their respective constituencies than on behalf of the Mediterranean as a whole.

Put another way, rather than heralding a new era of Mediterranean unity, this new scheme will at best provide substance to some sector-specific cooperation and counter Brussels' centralizing tendencies. Whether and how this move will change the way Europeans perceive threats emanating from the South remains to be seen.

But the involuntary moral of this saga may well be that the sooner the EU stops looking at its Southern periphery as the chimerical 'Mediterranean', the better it will be equipped to deal with its troubles.

Fabrizio Tassinari is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Copenhagen. His book, Ring of Fire: Why Europe Fears its Neighbors, will be published next year.


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

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