The dream of Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, to establish a union between Europe and its southern neighbours has finally seen the light, albeit in a somewhat deflated project.
The July 13 summit of 40 leaders from the Mediterranean region in Paris was a major symbolic and diplomatic victory for French foreign policy which had long been thought to suffer from stagnation and paralysis.
France managed to create a process of dialogue and cooperation during the summit despite the past European failure of adopting a single constitution and the breakdown of the Barcelona process, which by 2005 was meant to have created a north-south Mediterranean rapprochment, but was instead considered all but dead.
Moreover, the failure of America’s New Middle East project to produce any tangible results beyond chaos and war, prompted even Washington’s closest allies to come together under French auspices and embrace a union that demanded little of their governments.
Egypt, a key player in the Middle East peace process, was chosen as co-president of the Union.
Victory for realism
Unlike its predecessors, the Union for the Mediterranean promised much and asked little of its partners. There are no preconditions to join and certainly no demands to improve human rights or establish democratic systems of governance.
Also missing were demands for apologies for past colonial crimes in Northern Africa.
Even Sarkozy’s pledge to construct a European African Union during his presidential campaign last year was soon reduced to “Mediterranean Union” after he took office.
And Sarkozy found challenges from his European neighbours.
The Spanish and the Italians demanded that the new union be a continuation of the Barcelona process and not its alternative. The Germans, as well as the British, demanded that Europe have more say in future decisions making process.
German scorn eventually forced the name of the union to be changed to “Union for the Mediterranean”.
In his meeting with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, last March, Sarkozy was given an ultimatum to either accept European oversight or forget about their support.
As a result and contrary to French wishes, the European Commission for the Mediterranean now oversees all EU involvement – in particular funding -in any future plans and projects.
Nevertheless, the EU realises that it is better to open up to their southern neighbours through such arrangements rather than build high walls and barbed wires around a Fortress EU.
Not so equal
President Sarkozy has emphasised once and again that unlike the Barcelona process, the Union for the Mediterranean would be a union among equals.
But it was clear from its inception that the parameters that governed the structure and scope of the Union have been determined as a result of a compromise not among its members, but rather among Europe’s own partners.
Such a system left little room for any real consultations with the Arab or Turkish partners.
This has led many in the South to doubt the sincerity of their French and European partners.
In Ankara, the Turkish capital, this was seen as no more than a French tactic to keep Turkey out of the European Union.
In the North African countries, the Union would come to be viewed as a European framework to stem illegal immigration and to collaborate in intelligence and security cooperation to “combat terrorism”.
Only the beginning
But others in the region are more optimistic and see the Union not as a zero-sum process, but rather one that will pave the way towards implementing substantial progress and cementing partnerships that would ultimately benefit all the countries of the Mediterranean.
It is this sense of optimism that the organisation’s foreign ministers will use when they meet in November, to decide on a permanent home for the secretariat of the Union and a number of other specific projects that were suggested during the summit.
Either way, France has taken the lead – and the risk – and succeeded in bringing everyone on board, with the exception of Libya.
Break with the past?
But more importantly, the Paris summit also stands in stark contrast to the US position, as voiced by George Bush, the US president, (from the Israeli Knesset in June) that Europe and the Middle East not speak to radicals and “terrorists”.
The attendance of the likes of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, who the Bush administration considers a “radical,” along side Lebanese, Israeli and Palestinian leaders was considered a victory for diplomacy over warmongering.
Sarkozy, who went beyond the call of duty in courting and singing Israeli and American praise over the last several months, has publically recognised the importance of Syria’s regional role and welcomed al-Assad as an equal partner in future initiatives.
During his joint press conference along with the Emir of Qatar and the Lebanese president, the Syrian leader happily extended an open invitation for France to get involved in peace-making in the region.
France understands that it can play an important role in the region and particularly influence events in Lebanon and Syria.
And Damascus realises that France is an indispensable gateway to Europe and the West.
In the absence of a unified Arab initiative and in light of the US failure to sponsor serious regional diplomatic and political initiatives, many have enthusiastically welcomed France’s involvement and project.
It remains to be seen whether the Union for the Mediterranean will evolve independently of European or Western dictates and manipulation.
The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Al Jazeera.