"Club Med" row threatens to shadow EU summit

13th March 2008, Comments 0 comments

The official agenda of the upcoming meeting of EU leaders in Brussels risks being hijacked by a simmering row over grandiose plans.

Brussels -- The European Union's annual spring summit is traditionally devoted to the economy.

This year, its timing could not be more appropriate, coming in the midst of a global economic slowdown, accelerating commodity prices and deep uncertainty on the financial markets.

But the official agenda of Thursday and Friday's meeting of EU leaders in Brussels risks being hijacked by a simmering row over grandiose plans, put forward by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, for a new political body for nations bordering the Mediterranean Sea.

Details of Sarkozy's Mediterranean Union - or "Club Med," as some cynics call it - are still thin. But it has already succeeded in straining relations between the EU's two biggest members, France and Germany, as well as between the EU's wealthy north and its less-affluent south.

On Tuesday, Berlin announced that the biggest sticking points with Paris had finally been resolved. German officials said Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel planned to submit a joint proposal for a Mediterranean Union to their EU colleagues on Thursday, most likely over dinner.

But Franco-German harmony is unlikely to allay the concerns of many other sceptical member states, particularly those that do not border on the Mediterranean Sea but will nevertheless be asked to foot the bill for it.

"I am still waiting to be convinced by the French as to why we need something entirely new and different," Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik was saying as recently as Monday.

Plassnik was referring to an existing EU neighborhood policy which deals with the bloc's southern neighbors and which is known as the Barcelona Process.

EU veterans note that Sarkozy has also irked many in Brussels by ignoring traditional EU etiquette and pushing forward his proposal without consulting others.

"We still have to reflect about our position since we must first get a clear idea (on what the Mediterranean Union is about)," a source from the rotating Slovenian presidency of the EU admitted on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the intended beneficiaries of Sarkozy's plans have also reacted cautiously.

Israeli President Shimon Peres, for instance, has welcomed the idea but has not committed himself to his country's participation in the project.

Algeria, Libya, Syria and others have also remained cagey while Ankara is openly against, believing it to be a way to sideline Turkey's ambitions to become a full member of the EU.

Officially, the summit is scheduled to deal with three main points. Firstly, EU leaders are to hold their first debate on how to cut the bloc's emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) to at least 20 percent below 1990 levels - a legally-binding goal which EU leaders set a year ago.

But while prime ministers and heads of state are expected to broadly endorse a January 23 proposal put forward by the EU's executive body, the European Commission, officials in Brussels say they will try to steer clear of its most controversial aspect: how to share the burden of meeting that target.

Secondly, the EU's leaders are set to discuss ways to improve the transparency and stability of financial markets following last summer's market turmoil, which was sparked by the collapse of the US market for poorly-secured mortgages.

That subject, too, could run into fire, as EU member states have recently clashed over the issue of banking secrecy in Liechtenstein - a row which also threatened to suck in EU states such as Luxembourg and Austria, which have strong and relatively secretive banking sectors.

On the economy, leaders are expected to reaffirm their view that while the fundamentals of the European Union economy remain sound, complacency should be avoided.

Finally, they are set to discuss the so-called Lisbon Strategy of economic reform and stimulation - a program, which initially called for the EU to become the world's most competitive knowledge-based economy by 2010.

Though that target has long been abandoned, EU officials insist that the strategy is now beginning to produce some results.

DPA with Expatica

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