French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s goal of reasserting French influence in international affairs took a new turn with the ascendance of France to the EU presidency. Shortly after assuming the rotating presidency of the EU, France launched, through a spectacular gathering of 44 countries, a project for establishing a Union for the Mediterranean (UFM), a new regional group bringing together EU members and Mediterranean countries. Although such a high-level gathering and the July 13 summit meeting provided a platform for discussing regional crises, brokering new deals and, most importantly, establishing a new multilateral organization, it still remains to be seen whether it will live up to the original Mediterranean Union the French President had envisioned and will escape the tragic fate of many grand schemes for regional cooperation.
The bargaining with his European partners already forced Sarkozy to scale down his project for an exclusive “Club Med.” The importance of EU funding for the project and the determination of other EU members, especially Germany, to prevent France from hijacking the EU’s Barcelona process and diverting the EU’s center of gravity away from Central and Eastern Europe turned the new group into a loose association lacking any coherence (Spiegel Online, July 14). Nor was it easy for France to bring the leaders of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern nations on board. The French diplomatic corps had to work hard to convince these countries to put aside their differences and join an organization that currently does not offer many incentives on issues important to them such as immigration (Bassam Bounenni, Arab Reform Bulletin, Vol. 6, issue 6 [July 2008]). The debate over the location of the headquarters could be merely an indication of the disagreements to come (Daily Telegraph, July 13).
Turkey has been at the center of discussions on the project since the idea first was aired by Sarkozy as part of his presidential campaign in May 2007. When he announced his vision for a Mediterranean Union (MU), Sarkozy emphasized the crucial role that Turkey could play in this formation, which would be a new center of attraction. Coupled, however, with his negative views on Turkey’s full membership in the EU and the already troubled course of Turkish-French relations, it appeared that Sarkozy envisioned the MU as an alternative to Turkey’s entry into the EU (Milliyet, May 5, 2007). This not so pleasant initial encounter unsurprisingly caused anger among Turkish policymakers and shaped Turkey’s reaction to the project, as Sarkozy made MU a major foreign policy objective and promoted it at the EU level starting in the fall of 2007.
Sarkozy’s insistence on engaging Turkey in the project while at the same time offering Turkey diplomatic support in other international forums, such as Turkey’s drive for a seat on the UN Security Council, were attempts to compensate for Turkey’s losses and pave the way for institutionalizing a privileged partnership in lieu of full membership (Turkish Daily News, December 27, 2007). Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reacted to France’s hard-line position against Turkey’s membership; and when he met Sarkozy at the EU-Africa summit in December 2007, he declined to join the MU, which would imply a second class status at a time when Turkey was negotiating EU entry. Erdogan also complained to other European leaders about the French position on Turkey (Yeni Safak, December 9, 2007).
After intra-European bargaining, the EU gave the green light for the project in March 2008, which led to the establishment of the UFM in its current form as a tool to revitalize the earlier Euro-Mediterranean Partnership. Uneasy with these developments, Turkey sought assurance from other key EU members, such as Great Britain, that the new project would not be an alternative to expanding the EU to include Turkey. To a large extent, Turkey was successful in obtaining this support (Sabah, May 15). Even after receiving those guarantees, however, remarks by Foreign Minister Ali Babacan raised questions about Turkey’s participation in the UFM (Turkish Daily News, June 14). For a long time Libya and Turkey remained the only two countries that did not confirm their participation in the summit. Cognizant of the crucial role Turkey could play in the resolution of Middle Eastern conflicts, France keenly sought to ensure Turkey’s involvement. In addition to sending three special envoys and official invitation letters, Sarkozy called Prime Minister Erdogan on the eve of the summit to ensure his participation (Hurriyet, July 9).
Having obtained clear assurances from France, Erdogan attended the summit; and official statements from the Turkish government indicate that Turkey was satisfied with the results. According to Babacan, Turkey’s major achievements were to have the statement that Turkey was conducting negotiations with the EU included in the final communiqué, ensure the equal status of EU members and other partners and establish unanimity as the basic decision-making principle in the new organization (CNN Turk, July 12). Moreover, Turkish representatives at the summit held various bilateral meetings with their counterparts, the most spectacular being the one between Erdogan and Sarkozy. After reassuring Erdogan that under French presidency Turkey’s EU membership process would continue, Sarkozy also extended his support to Erdogan in the domestic hurdles his party is facing (CNN Turk, July 13).
The roots of Turkey’s policy shift on the UFM may also be traced back to Turkey’s aspiring new role in the Middle East, which France valued dearly (Zaman, July 12). Turkey has emerged as a peace maker in the Middle East through the initiatives it has undertaken to bring Palestinians and Israelis and Syrians and Israelis to the negotiating table. In the wake of spearheading these diplomatic maneuvers, Turkey’s image has been boosted in the region, which has helped Turkey feel that it has a stake in the success of the new project. This should also help facilitate rapprochement between the hostile parties and to contribute to the Middle East peace process. It was no coincidence that the dialogues between Israelis and Palestinians and Syrians and Lebanese filled center stage during the summit, and Sarkozy extended his gratitude to Erdogan for his contributions to the Middle East peace process (Referans, July 14).
The political costs of staying outside this regional grouping also might have forced Turkey to join the project, despite Sarkozy’s original goal of keeping Turkey outside the EU. Nonetheless, Turkish foreign policy analysts have already started questioning Turkey’s decision and the feasibility of the project. Turkish experts believe the UFM is unlikely to deliver effective solutions to regional problems and bring added benefits to Turkey; hence it was not prudent for Turkey to support Sarkozy’s self-serving show (Mensur Akgun, Referans, July 14). The only test of the Erdogan government’s decision to join the UFM will be the chances of the organization to realize its ambitious goals, which currently seem slim.