No Mediterranean Union shortcut around Arab-Israeli conflict

French President Nicolas Sarkozy wants to establish a Union for the Mediterranean. The idea of cooperation between countries north and south of the Mediterranean is by no means new. Decades ago the European Community had envisaged closer ties of partnership with the Maghreb countries. Those countries had been a secure source of cheap labour for Western European industry in past times. Through trade, 19th and 20th century European colonial policies and cultural and economic interaction, Arab communities had grown in various European countries, mainly those on the Mediterranean northern rim. It became natural as a result for both sides to harvest the historic process in a manner that served mutual interests.

Later in time, those foreign communities turned burdensome. The tendency of people from the poor south to migrate by any available means, sometimes illegal, to the prosperous north in pursuit of jobs and better living conditions, had eventually led to the formation of ghetto-like foreign quarters in some European capitals. With conditions for integration often difficult, the presence of those foreign communities had sharpened the contrast between different cultures rather than acting as the desired catalyst for cultural and social interaction.

To this, the European Community at the time reacted rightly by initiating programs to help improve economic conditions at home, i.e. in the sending countries, and to create better living conditions there so that fewer people would be forced to migrate. That was part of a larger cooperation package, which performed fairly adequately at the time. But while such European trends were meant to deal with practical issues that developed with time and continued to develop frequently, the overall political climate across a larger region, covering Europe, North Africa and the Middle East has, for a while, been changing. Other elements of higher urgency had descended upon an already troubled scene, such as terrorism, radicalization and religious fundamentalism. Masked discord between Muslim and host communities in Europe grew larger and with it grew suspicion and mutual fear.

President Sarkozy’s hard experience as interior minister in confronting the Paris riots must be a factor in formulating his campaign and current Mediterranean policy.

“President Sarkozy believes passionately in a Mediterranean Union, and is putting a great deal of energy — and urgency — into bringing it to birth,” Patrick Seale wrote for last April.

In Tangiers last October Sarkozy affirmed that “Building the Union for the Mediterranean is not only crucial for the Mediterranean rim nations, but for all of humanity.” He also said “it is the Mediterranean region that will determine whether north will clash with south, whether terrorism and fundamentalism will succeed in imposing its brand of violence and intolerance on the rest of the world.”

While it is hard to understand how such hope can translate into reality, it does on the other hand reflect deep passion for the Mediterranean Union project. Sarkozy seems also to believe that bringing people closer to each other is bound in the end to dilute, and eventually eliminate the many disputes that have been plaguing relations in the region for decades. He seems also to be convinced that while other similar unification projects have in the past failed because they sought the resolution of political problems first, and that was not possible, his plan to place a higher priority on economic, energy and environmental issues, and defer politics will have a better chance of success.

The plan envisages a Mediterranean Union of 43 states, all the 27 members of the European Union and the countries surrounding the Mediterranean including Jordan, Mauritania and the Palestinian Authority, with a population total of over 766 million people.

The summit, which convened in Paris on 13 July is supposed to officially launch the Union, and to establish its permanent offices. All the would-be members were represented at the summit except the Libyan leader who harshly criticized the project as a neo-colonial European plan to divide the Arabs, and to impose normalization with Israel upon them. He predicted the plan’s failure.

It is indeed a plan fraught with risks and intertwined with serious contradictions. It is not even easy to count the number of disputes that separate the 43 members of the Union, the social and economic disparities, the varied nature of problems facing each and the wide range of divergent interests and objectives.

If one of the primary goals is to combat terrorism and reduce radicalization and fundamentalism, the road to that is purely political and requires first and foremost resolution of the very chronic disputes such as the Arab-Israeli conflict which the Paris summit planned to avoid. No such grand goal can be achieved by simply bringing Arabs and Israelis, Muslims, Jews and Christians together, as Sarkozy seems sincerely to believe.

All the other economic and developmental issues have been intensely addressed by the Barcelona Process launched in 1995, which sought an even wider objective within a similar framework — 39 Mediterranean state members with a population of over 700 million.

A communication from the European Commission to the European Parliament and to the Council (20 May 2008) reported that “The Euro-Med Partnership has provided a means to address many strategic regional questions relating to security, environmental protection, the management of maritime resources, economic relations through trade in goods, services and investment, energy supplies (producing and transit countries), transport, migratory flows (origin and transit), regulatory convergence, cultural and religious diversity and mutual understanding.”

The European Council of mid-March this year had approved the principle of a Union of the Mediterranean and invited the commission to present proposals defining the modalities of what would be called “Barcelona Process: Union of the Mediterranean.”

Furthermore, the European Union has supported the process with the provision of 16 billion euros from its budget, in addition to loans from the European Investment Bank at a rate of two billion euros annually.

Against such a background one would rightly question the need, if not the wisdom of starting a new and a similar unification process, except that there is a far more pressing question: why seek such a vast radius of patchy countries and peoples instead of a more focused compartmental approach to issues and problems within smaller and more manageable circles?

Neither the Barcelona Process, nor the nascent Sarkozy unification scheme is viable. Both formations cut across already existing regional organizations which, with the exception of the European Union, have themselves failed in bringing their members any closer to each other, even physically, with barriers separating them and their countries rising rather than falling; or in bringing their problems any nearer to resolution. The jumbled membership includes Arab League members, but not all of them, hence the Qadhafi claim of a divisive plan, as well as African Arabs, Israelis, Turks and Europeans. It also includes different cultures and different social categories ranging from the very poor to the very rich, the very developed to the least learned. What kind of miracle could establish a common denominator amongst such contradictory and distant components?

Sarkozy and other European leaders are right to believe that matters relating to security and stability in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa are tightly linked, as well as directly related to economic development and social advancement in all fields in the areas south and east of Europe. It is also true that only by helping people to democratize, build corruption-free governments, better institutions and better education systems can they combat trends such as fanaticism, radicalization, violence and submission to manipulative incitement. However, this should follow, not precede the resolution of the chronic political conflicts. Much of the existing decadence is a direct consequence of the failure of the international system and the resulting bad and unjust politics. This cannot be reversed without reforming international politics and redressing injustice first.

Escaping into ambitious political fantasy is not the right approach to the acknowledged urgency. It is no more than a waste of time. Europe has been remarkably passive in dealing seriously with the problems of the regions in question. This is dangerous. If Europe is truly concerned, there is a due need for a principled, bold, decisive and compatible with international law policy towards the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Any correct course of action should begin there. It is to realize that shortcuts did not and will not work.

Hasan Abu Nimah is the former permanent representative of Jordan at the United Nations. This article first appeared in The Jordan Times and is reprinted with the author’s permission.