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Sarkozy's Club Med

Mark Mardell | 05:30 UK time, Friday, 11 July 2008

"Very nice dear, but what's it for?" After quite a few ups and downs the French president is, this weekend, proudly showing off his shiny new gadget - the Mediterranean Union.

Perhaps we shouldn't expect much from the first ever summit of a new organisation, but it is fair to ask what Mr Sarkozy expects from it. Peace in the Middle East? A half-way house for Turkey? A common approach to seaweed?President Nicolas Sarkozy and wife Carla Bruni in Tunis, Apr 08

It's not exactly clear as the deep blue waters of the Med, although the president, recently described in a very amusing Irish Times article as "personally unpleasant but extremely energetic", has invested a lot of that energy and suppressed some of the unpleasantness to achieve this get-together.

The Romans knew the sea in the middle of their world as "Mare Nostrum" - Our Sea.
Sarkozy's grand vision of a Mediterranean Union is on one level an attempt to remind Europeans that it is not just "Our Sea". The Med, formed by the clash of European and African tectonic plates, has given its name to a climate, a diet and a temperament that largely stresses a common bond between the people of its northern shores - the French, Spanish, Italians and Greeks - rather than those of North Africa and the Middle East.

Perhaps at the back of Sarkozy's mind is a noble effort to stress the basin's common heritage. A boat off Corfu (file pic)

But, as so often with the president's grand projects, one is left wondering whether it is not so much a vision but a momentarily entertaining hallucination, dragged up from goodness knows what regions of the unconscious - a plan without a purpose, an idea, free-floating, unsupported by any specific strategy and undirected towards any particular goal.

The president first played with the theme during his election campaign, when he talked passionately but vaguely about the French role in Algeria, and said that France did not have to be ashamed of its past, as it did not invent the final solution.

Many thought the plan itself was merely a cynical ploy to offer Turkey something less than full European Union membership and rather more than a vague associate partnership.

But alarm bells went off in Berlin and Brussels. The Med was to be seen as "our sea", the EU's sea, not just the private property of those on its shores. Chancellor Angela Merkel does not want France to straddle and dominate two competing organisations. Although it would be fanciful to see the MU as in any way a rival to the EU, she wanted to make sure the stirrings of any such thought of presumed equality were strangled at birth. Britain kept quiet, but diplomats see the Baltic and further expansion to the east as more important than this distraction.

Mrs Merkel won. It was made quite clear that Mr Sarkozy's baby might, like Athena, have sprung fully-formed from his head, but she was to be adopted and tutored by the EU itself. The MU was not to be a separate organisation, but a part of the EU under the already existing framework of what's known as the "Barcelona Process".

Mr Sarkozy's original plan for this weekend was very grand indeed. A meeting of just the Med countries, EU and non-EU, to be followed by "the rest of the EU meets the Med" - all fly-pasts and flashing lights to the greater glory of France and her president. There will doubtless be a good deal of that, but the Germans made sure the EU was not decoupled from the MU.

The Med Union wasn't allowed to be a separate organisation that sought to exclude the countries without an olive oil diet or access to fragrant scrubland. Even the Belgians insisted, and they like to think of themselves as honorary Mediterraneans, on the grounds that they have more flair and better food than the Dutch and Germans next door.

Not that it is all sweetness and light from the southern powers. Libya's Colonel Gaddafi has condemned it as a new imperialism, and warns of the Maghreb becoming a colony of Brussels. The Israelis see it as a useful tool. The Algerians are coming along but are cold. Turkey is deeply suspicious.

There's no doubt there are real common projects that could be useful, such as sharing power from solar panels, problems of pollution and over-fishing, that may be given fresh impetus. But perhaps the real purpose is to demonstrate that Sarkozy is at heart a Gaullist, with a determination to show that France is leading Europe, and is still a big player in the world, with a perspective different from some Atlanticist consensus. The political skill would be to make it an unquestioned reality, rather that an exercise in national and personal vanity.

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