The proposed 'Union for the Mediterranean', which aims to strengthen ties between the EU and Mediterranean countries in a number of key areas such as energy and security, was approved by EU delegates on March 14 after a two-day summit in Brussels. The suspicion remains, however, that the union may represent an attempt to create an alternative scheme by opponents of Turkey's accession to the EU.
The exact details of the plan, which will endeavour to improve energy supply and strengthen civil security cooperation, will be officially announced on July 13, after France assumes the EU presidency on July 1.
President Nicolas Sarkozy, the leading figurehead behind the concept of the 'Mediterranean Union', made it one of his key foreign policy planks in his 2007 election campaign. However, fears that the plan would be seen as a rival scheme to the EU and that it would supplant the long-standing Barcelona Process, established in 1995 with similar policy goals, led to some resistance, with opponents to the policy accusing Sarkozy of trying to defend French economic and political interests in North Africa. In the face of stiff opposition from other EU members, primarily Germany, Sarkozy was thus forced to make compromises.
The very name of the adopted plan "The Barcelona Process: Union for the Mediterranean" highlights it as an extension of existing agreements rather than the bold new scheme Sarkozy had fervently promoted.
Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa, whose country currently holds the EU presidency, said, "It is not a question of burying [the Barcelona Process], to start from scratch. It's just about bringing it up to date...times have changed, we have to adapt."
Instead of featuring EU countries on the Mediterranean shore only, as initially intended, the new scheme will include all 27 EU member states and 12 countries in North Africa and Asia Minor. The project will not receive any additional EU funds to those allocated under the Barcelona Process, although Sarkozy said he intended to raise an extra 14bn euros in private sector funding for the project.
"We have no problem with the Mediterranean Union. After all, Turkey is the country with the longest Mediterranean coastline. So we will of course look warmly on new projects, cooperation and solidarity in the region," one Turkish diplomat said.
Given the limited scale of the new scheme, and as Turkey has had a trade union with the EU since 1996, the potential benefits of joining the union are comparatively modest for Ankara. Still, in the days leading up to the announcement, Turkish representatives were eager to learn whether or not the union did constitute an alternative to their country's accession to the EU.
"They (the French) have given us a guarantee that the Mediterranean Union is not an alternative to Turkey's EU project, they say that idea has now been abandoned. They are sincere in this," the diplomat was reported as saying.
Their concerns are unlikely to be completely relieved until Sarkozy makes an official statement that the Union of the Mediterranean poses no barrier to future accession.
As an outspoken opponent to Turkey's membership of the EU, Sarkozy has reiterated his proposition for a 'privileged partnership', as a means of deflecting Turkish demands to continue to seek full membership of the EU. His policy is having some effect as the EU's lukewarm attitude towards its eastern neighbour has led to a marked decrease in public support for EU accession in Turkey itself. A poll by the German Marshall Fund in September 2007 found that only 40% of Turks believe EU membership would be a 'good thing' for their country, down from 73% in 2004.
In the meantime, negotiations surrounding Turkey's EU accession are continuing. On March 15, Olli Rehn, the EU Commissioner for Enlargement, confirmed that talks in at least two policy areas would begin by the end of June. The most likely topics of these talks will be the diversification of EU oil and gas routes through Turkish territory, and the upgrading of Turkey's corporate law to meet EU standards. "The EU accession process of Turkey is alive and moving forward," Rehn was reported as saying. But fears remain that an alternative EU track could derail Turkey's ambitions of becoming a full member of the coveted economic union.