Along with the pomp of the Bastille Day celebrations this weekend in Paris, the city will see another grand occasion: the first meeting of the “Mediterranean Union,” Nicolas Sarkozy’s pet project that he has made the centrepiece of France’s EU presidency. But the way Sunday’s meeting is being discussed, you’d think it was nothing more than a Camp David-style retreat. So is it the inaugural meeting of a new international body, or lip service to an idea that has failed to take flight?
Sarkozy’s vision of an alternative union has been watered down so much it is now almost unrecognizable from what he proposed during the French election campaign. What was originally intended to be a full-blown union offered as an alternative to the EU has now become a loose association that will be managed by the EU itself. It’s not surprising then that the union is now being labelled ‘Club Med,’ suggesting it is just a diplomatic association which will exchange pleasantries. Press reports looking ahead to Sunday’s meeting have focused almost entirely on the diplomatic aspect, noting that some of the world’s most bitter enemies will be sitting at the same table for the first time, including the leaders of Israel and Syria. Little is being said of what the union is supposed to accomplish because no one is quite sure at this point – the projects it has announced so far are little more than feel-good cooperation initiatives on things like cleaning up pollution and sharing solar panel technology.
The reasons for the project’s fizzle have much to do with suspicions of Sarkozy’s motivation. Germany saw it as an attempt at a power-grab by France and said it would not accept Sarkozy’s plan to allow only nations bordering the Mediterranean to join – so now all 27 EU member states are in it along with the 19 non-EU states bordering the sea. Turkey saw it as a ploy to keep it out of the EU – and so now the Turkish prime minister may not even show up to Sunday’s meeting. Libya’s leader Colonel Gaddafi said it's an attempt at new French imperialism in North Africa and has refused to participate – so the original ambitious initiatives were dropped. And the UK has indicated it could care less about the idea – seeing it as a pointless distraction.
At the moment it seems that the idea of a real “Mediterranean Union” is dead in the water and is unlikely to see the light of day any time in the next decade. But what does the attempt at its launch say about Sarkozy and how he views France’s role in the EU? As the BBC’s Mark Mardell notes today in his blog, the idea demonstrates that Sarkozy is at heart a Gaulist, eager to demonstrate that it is France that is leading Europe and is therefore an important player in the world. This is at the obvious expense of its neighbour Germany, which would be the other obvious contender in being the most important player in the union.
As Sarkozy aggressively seeks to entrench France firmly as the dominant EU player, could the ‘Club Med’ debate just be the first battle in an era of intense Franco-German rivalry within the EU? As the union currently floats adrift and in limbo after the Ireland referendum crisis, the question of who will take the lead in getting it back on course is still open. Assuming Merkel and Sarkozy stay in power, their icy relationship could form the backdrop of an ‘arms race of ideas;’ the battle to lead Europe.