The Med Basin Creates a Free-Trade Zone

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THE PARIS SUMMIT in July of 43 countries with a combined population of close to 800m people launched the Union for the Mediterranean with the promise of creating a free-trade zone by 2012. Although the initiative of French President Nicholas Sarkozy, failed to meet with universal approval, it nevertheless brought together the Middle East, North Africa and the European Union (EU), along with old adversaries, including Syria and Israel--technically still at war--as well as Turkey and Greece that have been at odds for centuries. An unusual feature of the organisation is the absence of political conditions of membership. Union heads of state will meet every other year, while foreign ministers will meet annually, with the first summit scheduled for November.

Some aspects of the organisation's financing and the location of its permanent secretariat are yet to be resolved as well as the identity of its first secretary-general. The Arab League originally sought full membership in the union but eventually settled for "permanent observer" status.

The only prominent Arab statesman conspicuous by his absence from the inaugural conference was President Muammar Gaddafi of Libya who said he feared that the new trade bloc would incite international terrorism. All the other countries of the region were represented by their heads of state or government.

Private exchanges taking place at the conference enabled President Bashar Assad of Syria to end his long-standing isolation and his agreement with Michel Suleiman, the new Lebanese president, to demarcate the border between their countries as they move towards full diplomatic recognition, was enthusiastically received.

Assad publicly shunned Ehud Olmert, the outgoing Israeli prime minister also present at the conference, but the two managed to hold an indirect dialogue facilitated through Recip Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister. However, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, and Olmert used the opportunity created by the conference to declare their willingness to make peace with each other.

President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, the first co-president of the Mediterranean Union, observed that all countries of the region were "linked by a common destiny" and urged them to work towards reducing the disparity of wealth that divides them. The other co-president of the nascent alliance, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who instigated and hosted the conference, noted that "European and the Mediterranean dreams" were "inseparable". The president said he shared the hope that the peoples of the Mediterranean basin would turn their common home into "an area of peace and prosperity" by "putting an end to a deadly spiral of war and violence"--as, he said, Europe had managed to do during the 20th century.

In fact, the Mediterranean Union is a vigorous reincarnation of the 1990 Mediterranean Forum--comprising Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia as well as France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Malta--that was eventually broadened into the so-called Barcelona Process in 1995. The union now includes 17 mostly Arab, South and East Mediterranean countries, including a future independent state of Palestine, plus all of the EU and some countries closely associated with Croatia and Montenegro.

The participation of the 27 EU member countries--to which President Gaddafi passionately objects--resulted from the insistence of Angela Merkel, Germany's chancellor, the biggest contributor to EU development aid funds.

As Ms Merkel explained, the present grouping of the Mediterranean Union has an enormous range of shared concerns that can best be approached in collaboration, including the development and protection of the common environment as well as international peace, internal security, trade in hydrocarbons and agricultural commodities, nuclear power construction, education and scientific research, migration and employment. …