Sarkozy's 'Club Med' plan set to undergo tough scrutiny at EU summit talks
BRUSSELS, Belgium: French President Nicolas Sarkozy's plan to set up a Mediterranean Union linking European, Middle Eastern and North African nations, first presented during his presidential campaign last year, has already undergone numerous redrafts to appease opposition within the European Union — particularly from Germany, which fears the project would boost Paris' influence while Berlin foots the bill.
The Mediterranean Union is supposed be launched at a summit in Paris in July. Getting it running would be the highlight of France's turn as EU president in the second half of this year.
Sarkozy sees the plan as linking the nations of southern Europe to the mainly Muslim nations to the south and southeast of Europe. He hopes to build trade and political ties and tackle issues such as trade, migration and security.
The French leader has also suggested the Mediterranean Union could be a way of developing close ties between the European Union and Turkey, whose entry into the EU he opposes.
However, the idea has irked many of France's EU partners. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has demanded that the entire EU — not just France and its southern neighbors — be allowed to take part, especially if the EU as a whole is being asked to contribute funds.
Other EU nations, including Austria, Spain, Italy and Britain, have been annoyed by the way they see Sarkozy attempting to ram through a policy they see little use for, given that the EU already has a €2 billion-(US$3 billion-)a-year aid program for its Mediterranean neighbors.
"I'm waiting for a convincing French argument for why we need something completely new and different," Austria's Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik said this week.
Skeptical diplomats are calling Sarkozy's plan the "Club Med." They expect the 27 EU leaders will give only a preliminary endorsement of a much scaled-back version of the blueprint during a summit dinner on Thursday.
"It will be a bitter pill for Sarkozy to swallow," said one diplomat on condition of anonymity.
Diplomats said elements of Sarkozy's plan have been so watered down that they are basically the same as the existing EU policies for the region, raising questions of why the French plan is needed at all. Nations that support Turkey's bid to join the EU — like Britain and Poland — fear Sarkozy's plan will be used to thwart Ankara's ambitions.
"President Sarkozy's proposal ... has so far been poorly conceived and, to say the least, awkwardly presented politically," said Michael Emerson, from the Center for European Policy Studies, a Brussels-based think-tank.
The EU launched the so called Euromed program in 1995 in Barcelona, Spain to foster economic, political and social reforms in the Middle East and North Africa.
That plan also aims to create a Euro-Mediterranean free trade area by 2010. But progress has been disappointing due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the refusal of many Arab states to abide by international human rights standards.
In the 10 years up to 2005, the EU has doled out €20 billion (US$30 billion) in grants and soft loans, but with little result in terms of boosting democracy or ending poverty in 10 countries stretching from Morocco to Turkey.
The EU also has a separate so-called Neighborhood Policy with many North African and Mideast states to develop closer trade and aid ties without the prospect of membership.
French officials are adamant however that their idea has value.
"The Union for the Mediterranean ... is a formidable bridge between two river banks, the Western world and the Arab world," said French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. "I hope that we will do it together, with the Germans in particular and all those others who want to take part."