July 14, 2008
PARIS – The leaders of 43 nations from Europe, the Middle East and North Africa have launched a Union for the Mediterranean, a brainchild of French President Nicolas Sarkozy that aims to improve cooperation in the region with practical projects that parallel efforts toward Mideast peace.
Sarkozy’s ambitious plan overlaps with European Union projects already in progress, and it was melded into EU efforts and expanded to include 27 members of the EU, not just those on the Mediterranean coast. Nearly all of the 43 nations sent a president or prime minister to the summit. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi objected to the idea and refused to come.
Sarkozy reveled at having brought so many leaders to the same table for the first time.
“We dreamed about a Union for the Mediterranean, and now it is a reality,” Sarkozy said in closing the summit in a palace abutting the River Seine. He called it an “extremely moving, very important moment.”
Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, co-presiding at the summit with Sarkozy, called on the new union to tackle reducing the wealth “gap” between north and south, and cited other southern Mediterranean “challenges” as education, food safety, health and social welfare.
He said the union has better chances of success than a previous cooperation process launched in Barcelona in 1995 because the new body focuses on practical projects.
While trying to unify the region, the summit laid bare the deep divisions that still slice through it and highlighted how hard it will be to parlay the meeting’s goodwill and words into real progress. Syria’s president refused to shake the Israeli prime minister’s hand, and Morocco’s king snubbed the meeting attended by the president of rival Algeria.
In a final declaration, Israel, Syria and the Palestinians along with countries across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa agreed to “pursue a mutually and effectively verifiable Middle East Zone free of weapons of mass destruction.”
The summit declaration also condemned “terrorism in all its forms” and announced six major projects, from a common university and easier travel visas for students to depolluting the Mediterranean sea and promoting solar power.
It also spoke of democratic principles, human rights and fundamental freedoms — values Western critics have accused such union members as Syria of violating.
The countries committed to “consider practical steps to prevent the proliferation” of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and their delivery systems. It was unclear, however, how the signatories — who included Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Syrian President Bashar Assad — would enforce the pledge.