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News EU’s Union for the Mediterranean drifts into irrelevance

wo weeks ago European leaders decided to postpone an upcoming summit of something called the Union for the Mediterranean.  It is safe to say that very few people in the Mediterranean noticed or cared.

The story of the UfM is a classic tale of what passes for foreign policy in today's European Union.  The organisation was the brainchild of President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who wanted to strengthen relations between the EU's southern member-states - such as France, Italy and Spain - and their North African and Arab neighbours across the sea.  It was not a bad idea in principle.  But it aroused the suspicions of Germany and other northern EU countries, which insisted in the name of European unity that all EU member-states should belong to the UfM.

And so it came to pass that, when the UfM was launched at a glittering ceremony in Paris in July 2008, it began life with no fewer than 43 members - the EU 27, plus 16 others ranging from Albania and Algeria to Israel and the Palestinian Authority.  This, together with its limited funds, made the UfM look unwieldy and close to irrelevant right from the start.

But in any event the UfM had barely got off the ground before it ran into trouble in the shape of the Gaza conflict between Israel and Hamas at the start of 2009.  High-level UfM meetings were suspended.  Like the Barcelona process, an earlier European effort at promoting stability and prosperity in the Mediterranean, the UfM turned out to be hostage to decades-old political tensions in the Middle East.

The official reason for the postponement of this year's summit, which was due to be held in Barcelona on June 7 but is now scheduled for November, is that European leaders wanted to give a chance for progress in indirect peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.  Oh, really?  The whole point of the UfM is that it is supposed to steer clear of politics and concentrate on uncontroversial projects such as solar energy, cleaning up pollution in the Mediterranean sea and encouraging small and medium-sized enterprises in the region.

The truth is that the planned summit was in danger of being disrupted by a row over the attendance of Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's pugnacious foreign minister.  Several Arab states made it clear that they would not go to Barcelona if Lieberman showed up.

So here we are: no UfM summit this month.  And after Monday's Israeli attack on a flotilla of ships trying to break the blockade of the Gaza strip, it is difficult to be optimistic that the summit will take place in November, either.  Apart from the impact on Arab-Israeli relations, the attack has damaged an already fraying relationship between Israel and Turkey.  Though one of the Mediterranean region's most influential states, Turkey has never thought very highly of the UfM.

The EU, for its part, is caught in the middle - stuck, not for the first time, with a foreign policy initiative that didn't look well-conceived in the first place and is now making the Europeans seem more ineffectual than ever.

Contact information Tony Barber
News type Inbrief
File link
Keyword(s) UfM, Union for the Mediterranean
Geographical coverage Euromed
News date 08/06/2010
Working language(s) ENGLISH