Excerpt from Atila Eralp&Cigdem Ustun (2009) “Introduction” in The European Neighborhood Policy and the Southern Mediterranean: Drawing from the Lessons of Enlargement edited by Michele Comelli, Atila Eralp and Cigdem Ustun, METU Press, Ankara.
Nicolas Sarkozy first launched the idea of the Mediterranean Union during his presidential election campaign in 2007, with the aim to create a Union bringing together only countries from the (northern and southern) Mediterranean basin. The group would be led by a rotating presidency dealing with issues such as energy, security, counter-terrorism, immigration and trade. However, the resemblance of the Mediterranean Union to the European Union was heavily criticized by Turkey since the idea of Turkey’s inclusion in the Mediterranean Union was perceived as an alternative to the EU membership for Turkey. Sarkozy’s statements, such as “Turkey would instead form the backbone of the new Mediterranean Union”, especially created discomfort and disappointment on the Turkish side.
The debate on the Mediterranean Union and Turkey’s membership to this new union coincided with the debates on a possible “privileged membership” between Turkey and the European Union, which increased the scepticism in Turkey towards the new initiative and resulted in the Turkish Foreign Ministry’s reaction. Abdullah Gul, then Foreign Minister said:
Turkey is a country that has started [accession] negotiations with the European Union. The negotiations started on the basis of a [EU] decision which was taken unanimously, including France. Putting obstacles to the progress of the negotiation process would amount to violating signatures and promises made in the past, which I do not think will happen.
After the reactions of policy makers, practitioners, civil society organizations and countries like Turkey, as well as the reactions emanating within the EU and particularly from Germany, France modified its original idea, which was to include only the countries bordering the Mediterranean, and accepted German Chancellor Merkel’s request to include all EU Member States and to bring the new initiative within the existing EU structures and policies in the region. This solution was first accepted by the March 2009 European Council, that requested the Commission with a formal proposal. The Commission document was published on May 20th, 2008. Subsequently, EU member states and Mediterranean partners agreed that the initiative, finally renamed “Union for the Mediterranean” and launched in a summit that took place in Paris on July 13th, 2008, be built upon the existing Barcelona Process.
This new initiative’s main objective has been increasing the co-ownership of the process while complementing the EU bilateral relations with these countries which will continue under existing policy frameworks such as the European Neighbourhood Policy as well as the regional dimension of the EU enlargement policy and to the EU-Africa strategy The “Union for the Mediterranean” emphasises three main chapters of cooperation already envisaged by the Barcelona process; a) political dialogue, b) economic cooperation and free trade and c) Human, social and cultural dialogue among the EU member states and the following Southern Mediterranean countries. Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco PA, Syria, Tunisia and Turkey, while Libya refused to participate. Finally, some other countries, not originally included within the Barcelona Process were included in the new initiative: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Mauritania, Monaco and Montenegro.
Despite the changes to Sarkozy’s original idea and the creation of a new initiative based on co-ownership, critiques of the “Union for the Mediterranean” continued. First of all, this initiative is criticized for not bringing an added value to the existing policies. It has been stated that the issues that have been included in the Union for Mediterranean were already in the three baskets of the Barcelona Process of 1995. The new Union was also criticized for lacking substance, especially on the issues such as the MEPP and the role for the Arab League. It has been argued that it is important to foster cooperation in cultural exchange programmes in order to respond to the issues such as migration, terrorism, religious intolerance and protection of human rights which did not find any substantial place in the Union for the Mediterranean. It is believed that too much emphasis has been put on the low politics, business and projects rather than vital issues and problems of the region. Furthermore, it is argued that, because new Union is a project-oriented initiative, it may decrease the emphasis put on the democracy, human rights and rule of law by the EU, and therefore the idea of conditionality has lost its importance in the relations between the EU and the southern Mediterranean.