In February 2007, on the stump in Toulon, the then presidential candidate proposed setting up a union made up solely of countries on the Mediterranean coast to supersede the Barcelona Process, which had not made much headway in 12 years’ time. Sarkozy’s objectives were threefold: the immediate goal was to woo French voters of North African or Middle Eastern descent by announcing large-scale development projects on the southern coast of the Mediterranean. A more long-term goal was to re-establish French hegemony in the region. And the third, more surreptitious object, was to provide a way out for Turkey, seeing as France remained adamantly opposed to its full integration into the EU.

From the outset, the project had to reckon with staunch opposition from Italy and Spain, and, even after a thoroughgoing overhaul, it was only saved by the intervention of Germany, which, though obviously not a Mediterranean country, is nonetheless heavily involved in the region by dint of its economic interests. So the UfM morphed into an EU 27 institution that was to press ahead with the Barcelona Process, which, in the words of Angela Merkel, “just needed to be revitalized”. And when Spain succeeded in getting the permanent secretariat domiciled in Barcelona, it no longer raised any objections to the re-establishment of the UfM.

To begin with, the remodelling meant setting up a general secretariat and five assistant secretariats, one of which would go to Israel and another to Palestine – something the Barcelona Process had been unable to put across against the Arab countries’ objection that Israel might thereby obtain a decision-making position. The organisation’s priorities are now to cooperate on concrete projects to combat the contamination of the Mediterranean, a region whose 200 million tourists [annually] constitute a mainstay of its economies; joint policies to cope with major natural or manmade disasters; and plans to tap solar energy and improve communications by land and by sea.

At a 17 June international meeting in Berlin to assess the UfM’s first year in operation, Günter Gloser, Minister of State for Europe, made Germany’s two main priorities quite clear: to curb illegal immigration from a region with a growing population of young unemployed, and to promote solar energy, a field in which Germany already technologically rivals Spain, with a view to generating power in the Maghreb and re-importing it into Germany.

Needless to say, the South takes a very different view: it believes true cooperation geared towards regional development calls for a European agricultural policy allowing exports of farm produce to the North; the creation of a Euro-Mediterranean bank to facilitate the financing of large-scale projects, which thus far have been mere objects of speculation; and doing away with the formidable visa restrictions on young nationals from the region so they can study in Europe.

Sarkozy had blamed the failure of the Barcelona Process on the EU’s preoccupation with its Eastern neighbours and concomitant neglect of the south coast of the Mediterranean, which only mattered to other littoral States. The UfM’s first year has shown that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that had frozen the Barcelona Process has also paralysed the new version. Nor has it answered the calls for concrete projects to be started without waiting for the end of a conflict whose resolution is not discernible in the offing: the greatest contribution to peace in the region would be social and economic development. In addition to the main Arab-Israeli conflict, the Union is plagued by other internecine strife, including the ongoing conflict between Morocco and Algeria over the Western Sahara, which makes it impossible to build a big motorway to connect up the Maghreb, and the intransigence of Libya, which regards cooperation with Europe as a return to colonialism.

The fact that there seem to be no medium-term prospects of effective cooperation between the two Mediterranean shores, at a time when the income disparity is 1:10, perhaps the widest earnings gap in the world, does not bode well for what lies ahead.