PARIS, July 13 – French President Nicolas Sarkozy and 42 leaders on Sunday launch a union between Europe and its Mediterranean neighbours but tensions among Middle East countries could undermine the grand plan.
Heads of state and government from the 27 EU nations and an arc of countries running from Morocco to the Balkans — representing some 756 million people — will inaugurate the new forum at the Grand Palais on Paris’ Champs Elysee.
The summit will see Syrian President Bashir al-Assad return to the international stage, but while he will sit at the same table as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert no talks between them are planned.
Libyan President Muammer Gaddhafi is boycotting the meeting, however Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has agreed to attend after personal lobbying from Sarkozy, who has angered him by opposing Turkey’s EU membership.
The union aims to build on the old Barcelona process, which was plagued by disputes between Israel and its Arab neighbours, but put the partners on a more equal footing.
Through his energetic lobbying, Sarkozy scored a major coup by getting almost everyone to the venue, although their attendance will not be enshrined in any family photograph, due to objections.
To sidestep differences between Israel and its Arab neighbours, the new forum will concentrate on a series of modest regional projects such as cleaning up pollution in the Mediterranean Sea or developing solar energy.
But EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana suggested that the new union, which was championed by Sarkozy during his presidential election last year, could give new impetus to the Middle East peace process.
"This exercise is not the core of the Middle East peace process. They have other avenues," Solana said Sunday as foreign ministers met to approve the final summit declaration.
"But no doubt, business of this nature in which people from all parts of the Mediterranean get together will also be important to create the atmosphere to give some sense of momentum for the peace process."
Drawing up a final declaration has proved difficult, with references in the draft to Middle East peace moves and the fight against terrorism, extremism and weapons of mass destruction likely to be chopped out.
On the eve of the summit, signs emerged that regional differences could rear their heads, with the Arab League raising Middle East issues, days after the Palestinian Authority and Algeria.
"When the UFM examines the situation in the Mediterranean region, it must not ignore the Palestinian cause," said Amr Mussa, chief of the Arab League, which may be granted observer status in the union.
Some partners are reluctant to take part in projects with Israel.
Respect for human rights also remains an issue, with the draft text saying the new union considers it an "ambition", but not a condition for greater cooperation.
"Has this proposal in part been created to bypass human rights obligations? The total absence of human rights provisions leaves this question open," the head of Amnesty International’s EU office, Nicolas Beger, said Friday.
Indeed most of the emphasis is on raising the public profile of the forum, by setting up a joint presidency — with France and Egypt set to take the first turn — and organising summits every two years.
A secretariat will also be created to supervise the projects, but its location was set to remain under discussion until the last minute.
The summit, starting at 1330 GMT, will be held at the glass-domed Grand Palais that was built for the Paris Exhibition in 1900.