Turkey's problem with the idea of a Mediterranean union is that it was presented by Nicholas Sarkozy during his election campaign and immediately thereafter as an alternative to Turkey's membership in the European Union. It thereby reflected the new French president's clear and open opposition to Turkey joining the EU.
Turkey's eventual membership in the EU was an important element in presidential campaign debates in France. The passionate discussion of this issue--as if France faced no challenges of its own and more importantly as if Turkey was going to become a member immediately--puzzled many Turks. Since the idea of a Mediterranean union was put forward within this context and with the clear suggestion of an alternative to membership, Turkey's initial response to the idea was negative. After all, Turkey was awarded candidate status to the EU at the Helsinki summit in 1999 and started accession negotiations in 2004. This means that both the EU and Turkey are bound by certain commitments.
Aside from a possible way of keeping Turkey out, Sarkozy had other objectives in launching this policy initiative. In a way, this was yet another reflection of a traditional French policy of maintaining the Mediterranean dimension in the EU, especially in the face of a growing Eastern European dimension following the biggest wave of enlargement. Furthermore, this was in line with France's response to its decreasing influence in its former North African colonies and constituted an attempt to increase its role in the Mediterranean, the Middle East and globally. Finally, it was hoped that such an initiative would help France and the EU exploit further trade and energy opportunities and deal more effectively with challenges such as migration in the region.
However, from the beginning the idea met with severe criticism. An important objection came from within the EU itself, where Germany and northern members criticized France for excluding northern Europe. Spain wanted to make sure that the proposed union would not replace the Barcelona process. The European Commission perceived it as duplicating existing EU structures.
The German government led the resistance. In March 2008, Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel finally reached a compromise that was later approved by the EU leaders. As a result, the name of the initiative has changed to "Barcelona Process: Union for the Mediterranean". This way the initiative was presented within the context of the Barcelona process and the suggested name's resemblance to the European Union was avoided. Although the original idea was exclusive to the states bordering the Mediterranean Sea, it was decided that all EU members would be invited.
The main focus of the union was also shifted to more specific and largely technical areas of cooperation such as improving energy supply, fighting pollution in the Mediterranean, strengthening surveillance of maritime traffic and creating a scientific community between Europe and its southern neighbors. Finally, Franco-Italian demands for financing for the new body were rejected and it was decided that no EU money beyond the funds allocated for the Barcelona process should be given to the new union.
As to the non-EU Mediterranean countries, Libya declared that it would send a low-ranking diplomat to show its unease with Israeli participation, whereas Morocco and Israel made it clear that they do not want the union to become a substitute for their close bilateral ties with the EU. But the most important opposition came from Turkey.
Recently, however, Turkey also began to signal its participation in the upcoming summit. French State Secretary of EU Affairs Jean Pierre Jouyet visited Ankara on May 8, 2006 to assure Turkey that this was not an alternative to "Turkey's relations with the European Union" and stressed the importance of Turkey's participation in the project. The fact that the original idea was watered down as a result of intra-EU bargaining also helped Turkey, as clearly the union as it is cannot be an alternative to membership.
Turkey is also the country with the longest Mediterranean coastline. It has been more active in Mediterranean issues in recent years and is an active partner in the Barcelona process. Finally, Turkey and particularly the Turkish private sector can benefit from new projects and intensification of cooperation in the region. Being aware of the significance of Turkey's participation, France has also been actively trying to achieve this objective.
In the final days leading up to the summit, diplomatic negotiations seem to be focusing more on Turkey's level of participation. Where EU diplomats in Brussels are discussing the content of the summit's final communique, Turkey is insisting on being mentioned as an "EU candidate country". France has not accepted the proposal, yet insists on Turkey's participation at the highest level. Already the issue seems to have surpassed the context of a union for the Mediterranean and become more about Franco-Turkish relations within a Turkish-EU framework.- Published 10/7/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org