France hopes Mediterranean Union will secure its regional influence

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The summit held in Paris on July 13, hosted by the French president Nicolas Sarkozy to launch the Union for the Mediterranean, was attended by 42 European Union (EU) and Mediterranean heads of government, including Hosni Mubarak, the president of Egypt, who co-chaired the summit with Sarkozy. All 27 EU heads attended the summit, as did almost all those from the countries on the south coast of the Mediterranean Sea, from Morocco in the West to Turkey in the east, including Israel. The scheme benefits Israel enormously; the others are almost set back to colonial times by the political, economic and security controls they will be subjected to under the Mediterranean Union plan.

In fact, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, who boycotted the summit and sent his foreign minister as an observer, cited two reasons for staying away; the main one was that the Mediterranean Union plan is reminiscent of imperialism. His second objection (which exposes his hatred of Islamic activism and groups) was that the summit would provoke the resentment of Arabs and Muslims worldwide, and would therefore strengthen the hand of Islamic groups. Qaddafi, who is openly committed to the US "war on terrorism" and seems not to object to the US’s ambition to rule the world, is not exercised about imperialism as such. But he is right that the Mediterranean Union plan will provoke the wrath of Muslims as a whole and of Islamic groups in particular.

But Qaddafi was not the only Arab ally of the US to be feeling uncomfortable about attending the summit. King Mohammed VI of Morocco stayed away, sending his brother instead, and King Abdullah of Jordan sent a senior official in his place. However, unlike Qaddafi, neither made a public statement on the issue –” probably convinced that the US, which probably sees the Mediterranean Union as a potential rival, would be satisfied with their absence and that their people would see their absence as reluctance to play second fiddle to France, the main former colonial ruler of North Africa. But president Bouteflika of Algeria, who has publicly criticised the Mediterranean Union plan as a reassertion of French colonial rule, travelled to Paris, nevertheless, to attend the summit.

But what should have disturbed the Arab and other Muslim attendees and persuaded them to stay away was the presence of Israel, which was represented by its prime minister, Ehud Olmert. Sarkozy exploited the presence of Syria’s president, Bashar Asad, and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to claim that the summit healed hostilities, not only between Syria and Israel but even between the latter and the Palestinians and between Syria and Lebanon, whose president attended the summit. And although Asad, unlike Abbas, avoided being seen speaking to Olmert, he asserted that the restoration of “normal” relations with Israel was possible.

Olmert also made certain remarks, such as about Israel’s readiness to release Palestinian prisoners, to show that he was prepared to settle his country’s war with the Palestinians and other Arabs. But speculation that his readiness to settle was due more to his anxiety to stay in power soon became rife. In Israel, Olmert is being accused of corruption and may soon be put on trial, so his diplomatic games at the summit were interpreted as an attempt to distract attention from this. That he is not really willing to settle with Palestinians –” or for that matter with other Arabs –” was shown by the announcement, soon after the end of the summit, that Israel would continue to build new settlements in the West Bank, despite its promise to give up doing so.

That Israel will be unwilling to settle its disputes in the region is shown by the summit’s declaration that its security is an essential element of the Mediterranean Union’s own security. The issue of security, which was one of the main items on the summit’s agenda, was interpreted as security for the region against "Islamic terrorists". Originally, Sarkozy’s plan for the Union was supposed to be limited to countries bordering the Mediterranean, but he was forced to extend it to all EU members as a result of protests by Germany. Because Sarkozy wants the EU to pay the Union’s costs, and Germany is the biggest contributor to the EU’s budget, Berlin was able to force him to extend membership to all EU members.

But the extension of membership to all EU countries –” though apparently harmful to French interests –” does not limit the exploitation of southern Mediterranean countries for economic or political reasons. In an unconvincing attempt to disguise that exploitation, Egypt was invited to co-chair the summit. This was intended to give diplomatic prestige to the summit but not to allow Cairo to exert any real influence. In fact, during the summit debate it was made clear that Egypt should never be allowed to become a president or co-president of the Union, and must be content with co-chairing certain meetings. It is, however, certain that this will not discourage president Mubarak from exploiting his co-chairmanship of the summit to extend his influence on Middle Eastern and African issues; hence his travel to South Africa and Uganda to discuss the situation in Sudan.

That the co-chairmanship of the summit by such a corrupt and ruthless ruler as Mubarak can be seen as lending credibility and respectability to the summit is an indication of how fraudulent the whole exercise is. Mubarak is not only a dictator who is determined to pass his power to his son, but also his ruthless suppression of leading opposition groups (such as the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen) makes him a liability to any organisation or project. In fact, while he was in Paris to co-chair the summit, his armed forces hunted down and arrested many members of the Ikhwan. But this type of behaviour is acceptable to the promoters of the Mediterranean Union, who consider the suppression of Islamic activists and groups as essential to the maintenance of EU security.

Even Sarkozy, who considers that the extension of the Union to include Germany and Britain limits France’s economic exploitation of North Africa, nevertheless considers the new Union a triumph for him and his country, mainly because of the extension of the war against ‘Islamic terrorism’ and the protection of Israel.

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