On his visit to Algeria and Tunisia last week, Sarkozy began to test the water for closer co-operation between southern European and North African states. Talking to Tunisian newspaper Assbah, he said that his plans for a Mediterranean Union had received "a warm welcome by our Mediterranean partners within the EU and by countries of the Southern Mediterranean".
The French president had floated the idea of a Mediterranean Union during his election campaign, before coming to office in May this year. However, it remains unclear exactly what shape it will take and how the already existing Euro-Mediterranean relationship can be "beefed up".
According to Sarkozy, five North African countries (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania and Libya) and five member states (France, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Malta) are intended to be at the core of the initiative, which should be governed by a permanent council, similar to the Council of Europe. Its focus would be on organised crime and terrorism, sustainable development, illegal immigration and energy security.
The issue of energy supply will also feature high on the agenda of the upcoming French-Algerian meeting in November. France is offering a transfer of nuclear-energy technology for civil use, while Algeria, in return, would grant access to its gas supplies. In an interview with Algerian daily El Watan, Sarkozy said that he supported a rapprochement between the French-owned energy companies GDF, Suez and Total and the Algerian Sonatrach.
However, the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership and the so-called Barcelona Process, in place since 1995, have already failed due to low ambitions from the EU's side and a lack of willingness from the EU's southern neighbours to co-operate with each other.
Meanwhile, French Prime Minister Fillon also promoted the idea of a Mediterranean Union on his visit to Italy on 13 July. He said that France, Italy and Spain intended to work on the initiative together. Fillon stated: "There is an urgent need for a large cooperation project for more security and more prosperity."
Sarkozy will first have to convince France's European partners, such as Italy and Spain, to join the initiative. The Commission in particular, which has been eager to underline the equal footing of the EU's partners to the East and South in its re-vamped Neighbourhood Strategy, is unlikely to endorse the plans (EurActiv 05/12/06).
Criticism was also raised by Turkey, which views this initiative as a means to stop the country from realising its EU-membership bid. The US may also fear losing its predominant influence in the region.