What union for the Med?
On the initiative of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, EU leaders met their Southern Mediterranean counterparts in Paris on Sunday to re-launch a common strategy for the Mediterranean. Something of a Barcelona Process Plus or, as the French have labelled it, a Union for the Mediterranean, aka UfM.
The question is whether the countries bordering the Mediterranean are truly prepared to enter in a union of sorts. At best, that question remains a moot point.
Originally conceived as an electoral platform for Mr Sarkozy to keep Turkey away from EU membership, the UfM has since evolved into something different, broader in scope. For starters it has been adopted by the whole EU, involving all EU countries along with their Southern Mediterranean counterparts - 39 countries in all - rather than just those bordering the Mediterranean. The plan now builds on the existing Euro-Mediterranean policy, the so-called Barcelona Process, which was launched in 1995 to build an "area of stability, shared prosperity and security in the Mediterranean region".
Few doubt that the Barcelona Process has not lived up to expectations. Certainly, its goal of achieving a Euro-Med free trade zone by 2010 is still far from being achieved. But even in other areas, ranging from political dialogue to cooperation in the environmental and cultural spheres, progress has been much too slow. And on migration, we know from experience that Barcelona has led nowhere.
Human rights too remain a hot potato, not least because in most of our Southern Mediterranean partners democracy itself is still an issue.
There is much to be said on why progress has been this slow.
Clearly, the Arab-Israeli conflict/peace-process has always overshadowed Euro-Med relations, presenting a formidable obstacle to progress. Getting Arab and Israeli leaders to sit together in the same room is itself a feat, never mind the many meetings whose agenda is hijacked by the issue.
Understandable, yes, but frustrating nonetheless. Yet, there are other reasons too. The process has been constantly criticised by Arab countries as something of a neo-colonial policy whereby Europe seeks to impose its influence in the region in a domineering manner, rather than one based on equal partnership. That is a fair point.
Moreover, EU funding to sustain the policy, although generous, has not been quite enough to make that difference. And Europe's focus on its own enlargement, mainly to the east, over the past 10 years is also cited as having seriously distracted its attention from the Mediterranean region. Enter Mr Sarkozy whose plan for a UfM, grandiose as it may sound, sought to save the day. His plan, albeit rewritten by the European Commission, seeks a projects-based approach based on "visible deliverables". This is a realistic way forward.
Among the projects, the plan calls for more investment in transport infrastructure such as coastal motorways linking land and sea points and the construction of a trans-Maghreb motorway.
The de-pollution of the Mediterranean and sounder environmental governance is another worthy cause which puts back some oomph into the Horizon 2020 Initiative, which had been agreed in 2006 and since forgotten.
A so-called Mediterranean Solar Plan will step up investment in alternative sources of energy, notably in solar power whose potential is by far under-utilised.
And, finally, civil protection cooperation, especially its maritime dimension, is also commendable given the severe vulnerability of the Mediterranean Sea, our sea, to natural and man-made environmental disasters. On its part, the EU will sustain its funding, which already runs into well over €1 billion per year. But to make all this work, financing must also be sought from the private sector and international financial institutions as well as from the Southern Mediterranean partner countries themselves. They too will need to chip in.
Crucially, the plan foresees some institution-building, a first for this process, through biennial summits of heads of government along with a co-presidency and a joint secretariat to manage projects.
As I write, the decision of where the secretariat will be based is not yet known; Malta itself being a rightful contender.
So will Mr Sarkozy's plan truly lead to a "union" for the Mediterranean in the real sense of the word?
According to the French President, we used to dream of a Mediterranean Union and now it is a reality.
Probably not. But the man has certainly injected much needed dynamism into Euro-Med relations, reigniting hope that, one day, the Mediterranean might truly become a thriving centre of regional integration, rather than just a frontier.
For that alone, Mr Sarkozy deserves all our "felicitations".
Dr Busuttil is a Nationalist, member of the European, Parliament.