03/07/2009

Renewal of the Union for the Mediterranean

Press review – week from June 29 to July 3, 2009

On June 25th, the first ministerial meeting of the Union for the Mediterranean on Sustainable Development was held in Paris. For many participants in this meeting, it was a « revival » of the process of UM even if the union still faces enormous challenges.

A Union for the Mediterranean blocked since the winter

Launched at the Paris Summit of July 13th 2008, the Union for the Mediterranean has witnessed a blockage with the Israeli operation on Gaza during last winter. Since then the Arab members did not wish to resume dialogue in a situation of war between Israel and Gaza.

In fact since its conception the UM raised a decisive question of « method »: shall the Israeli-Palestinian conflict be resolved first to allow the creation of the UM or should the UM be launched now to encourage Peace in the Middle East?

« The projects are not enough » criticized Didier Billion, co-director of the Institute of International and Strategic Relations (IRIS) and specialist of the region. « This is not the way we will put an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict », “this issue will be resolved first through policy » he says on Euractiv website.

For his part, N. Sarkozy had drawn a parallel between the launch of the Union for the Mediterranean and the European Union’s, referring to the ECSC as a project that has brought the European Union we nowadays know. However, the researcher points out that « the ECSC is a project that would not have been initiated until a political agreement between France and Germany. » « It is the policy before the projects, he concludes, not the reverse. »

After Gaza, re-launching cooperation

Resuming the UM despite last months’ conflict in Gaza and a palpable tension between the Arab countries and Israel was the challenge that awaited the members of the UM on June 25th in Paris.

Le Monde welcomes the Franco-Egyptian ability ( the UM is currently co-chaired by both countries) to bring together the Israeli Minister of Environment, Gilad Erdan and Minister of Economy of the Palestinian Authority, Bassem Khoury, with their UM counterparts. It was the first time since the outbreak of the Israeli offensive on Gaza in December 2008 that such a meeting had taken place. « A few months ago nobody would have bet on our chances of reaching up such a meeting. It shows that those who always want that project to fail are wrong. We can say that the UM is revived » said H. Guaino to Le Monde. « We get the momentum again » said Minister Borloo. Projects are going faster than the political process. »

The Moroccan daily Le Matin focuses on the will of Henry Guaino, special adviser to the French President, to lead a project of water supply and water treatment plant in Gaza as a « priority » of the UM. « For the first time, we are having a meeting of ministers so consequently a political meeting: the proof that we overcome, although it is difficult, the tragedy in Gaza ». Mr. Borloo said that the project was concerning « about 20% of the water needs of the Palestinian territories.”

Questioned by AFP, the Israeli Minister of Environment, Gilad Erdan considered the meeting as a « very important step forward. »

On Euractiv website, the French leaders involved in the UM believe that if the process could be revived it is because the « method » differs from the Barcelona Process and « because (we) changed the parameter of cooperation ». The meetings of the Barcelona Process were gathering ambassadors and experts together, whereas those of the Union for the Mediterranean meet Heads of State and Government, a “valuable asset », according to Gilles Mentré. Such view is shared by the President of the Arab World Institute, Dominique Baudis, who explains on Euractiv that « it was a mistake to launch the Barcelona process only on a ministerial level. When the initiative is taken by the Heads of State and Government, the political impact is stronger. »

« We discussed the need to reactivate the Union for the Mediterranean in its technical aspects and sectors, » said Aboul Gheit. For the Egyptian leader, it is now time « to achieve the original idea of the UM, which was not designed to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or conflicts between countries, but to strengthen the relations » between countries bordering the Mediterranean.

Sustainable development at the heart of the UM

L’Express reminds the somewhat « apolitical » aspect of the meeting in a context of obvious political and diplomatic tensions, the purpose of the meeting being to coordinate the national policies of the 43 member states of the UM concerning ecology. Four major issues were highlighted: water management, transport, energy and urban development. The regional situation constitutes an emergency: with one of the fastest growing rate of urbanization of the planet, the Mediterranean area knows the consequences of water stress due to increased population pressure on the coast.

“This meeting provides an important impetus (…) it allows us to move from a policy framework to an effective implementation », has also declared the Egyptian Minister of Industry, Rachid Mohamed Rachid, who chaired the meeting.

Towards an energy partnership?

Energy cooperation was also on the agenda of the ministerial meeting of June 25th reportedEuractiv. « This is not the first time that the economy, through energy, could be used for leverage, » said the Director of Communications and Public Affairs of the RTE, Michel Derdevet. Mr. Derdevet was indeed referring to the construction of the European Coal and Steel Community, a project which formed the basis of the EU we nowadays know.

Energy is a matter of first importance in the region: 9% of world energy demand comes from the Mediterranean. Electric growth of the southern countries is 6 to 7% against 1% for the north. « Encouraging neighboring countries to work together makes sense » said Derdevet. Our interdependence can lead to a concept of energy partnership. »

Indeed, a large number of projects exposed on Thursday are linked to the Mediterranean Solar Plan, which focuses on renewable energy, energy efficiency and inter-connectivity between countries such as the creation of solar thermodynamic plants in the Sahara to answer the needs not only of the southern shore of the Mediterranean, but also via submarine cables, Europe (see our information file on the Mediterranean Solar Plan).

A positive revival that leaves unanswered questions

Mr. Azoulay, advisor of King Mohammed VI of Morocco, welcomed the « restart of political and cultural dialogue », emphasizing on the website of the Anna Lindh Foundation that it « forges the true backbone of the UM and determines its legitimacy and ultimately its reason of being ». According to him, this resumption of dialogue « is appropriately comforting and expanding the new emerging balance in the region » since President Barack Obama’s speech in June in Cairo.

This revival has been the opportunity for some countries to reaffirm their commitment to the UM project and the Euro-Mediterranean dialogue. For instance, Morocco has considered the Euro-Mediterranean dialogue as « more relevant than ever » through the Moroccan Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Latifa Akharbach to the AFP. The latter said that the commitment of Morocco is due to its desire to « build an ever more ambitious relationship with the European Union. »

The Moroccan newspaper Le Matin stresses that this meeting will lead to other similar meetings in the coming months, evoking a meeting of Environment Ministers in mid-October in Dubrovnik and other ministerial conferences on transport and energy to be held in Egypt and Greece by the end of the year. The German State Secretary for European Affairs, Gunter Gloser, confirmed that the meeting in Paris of June 25th showed that the Union for the Mediterranean « is not dead » reports Le Matin.

According to the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the next ministerial appointment is scheduled for July 7th in Brussels with a meeting of finance ministers of the Union for the Mediterranean, on the sidelines of the ECOFIN meeting.

However, if this revival should be highlighted, some deadlocks remain unresolved

Euractiv recalled the difficulties that exist in the institutional field. We know that the General Secretary will be in Barcelona but the composition of its « team » is problematic. « All countries in the southern Mediterranean have agreed to renounce to the chair of General Secretary under the condition that their neighbor did not do it as well » Dominique Baudis sums up. Such an appointment should occur by the end of the year.

Besides, the Israeli-Palestinian issue is obviously still relevant as a barrier to theprocess. « We cannot ignore the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The identity issues must be resolved prior to the UM »said the head of the diplomatic mission of the League of Arab States in Paris, Nassif Hitti. The risk of the UM being an hostage of the conflict is pointed out since its inception and this fear has proved it was justified last winter. « If you cannot find the spirit of Madrid, there will be no Barcelona one, two, or three, » said Nassif Hitti. Indeed, in 1991, the Madrid conference had fostered the peace talks that led to 1993 Oslo Agreements and the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan in 1994.
“The UM is in trouble because the States members are down » explaibed Asteris Huliaras, associate professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Athens.

The issue of funding that had until now remained unclear is a problem, what is more in a context of global financial crisis.

The European Investment Bank, responsible for funding the « motorways of the sea » and the « solar plan » has ensured that the financial crisis will not change the funding to be awarded to these projects. However we still do not know the content of the commitment of the EIB.

To some experts, the crisis could nevertheless serve the UM pushing more projects to use public-private partnerships, a privileged form of funding envisaged in the framework of the UM.

However, for all projects of the UM, the needs are estimated up to 200 billion euro over the next five years. But the 43 member States have only released 23 billion euro for the moment. On the European side, Germany has reiterated its warnings and has set limits: the UM shall not benefit from additional budgets to the Barcelona process’.
Another obstacle to the functioning of the UM is the divisions among the north shore. Indeed,Euractiv recalls the tensions caused by the agreements that France had, despite the rotating EU presidency, which allowed it to remain co-president of the UM. After an agreement with the Czech and Swedish Presidencies to keep the head of the UM, France just did the same with the future Spanish EU Presidency. However, in a letter to his Spanish counterpart, Foreign Minister of Belgium, Karel de Gucht said he was shocked by this new alliance. Specialist of  the Mediterranean Bekhouche believes that the letter of the Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs confirms that the UPM is an issue which concerns all European countries, not only States that border the Mediterranean. « It’s a real topic, he says. This is not a question of French-Spanish alliance. »
The image of a too “Franco-French » union has not waned since its inception.