EU's Union for the Mediterranean launched in Paris
Progress made between Europe and countries in the Middle East as the Union for the Mediterranean is launched14 July 2008
PARIS - The European Union on Sunday established closer ties with the Middle East and with its North African neighbours at a summit in Paris that was described by its European backers as a "historic" success.
"This is a historic contribution for the future of Europe and the future of the Mediterranean," said European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso after the formal launch of the Union for the Mediterranean.
"A major initiative is born, and now we have to nurture it and go further," added the meeting's host, French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Syrian President Bashar al- Assad and the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, were among the 43 leaders attending the summit, which was held in the glass-roofed halls of Paris' Grand Palais, by the Champs Elysees.
In a final declaration issued at the end of the four hour summit, heads of state and government agreed to work together on a series of practical projects which would benefit the region.
They include the de-pollution of the Mediterranean, the creation of maritime and land highways, common responses to disasters, and a push for the development of solar energy.
Diplomats said one major source of dispute during the talks concerned the declaration's exact wording on the ongoing Middle East peace process.
Officials in Brussels had noted that the lack of peace between Israel and the Palestinian territories had played a major role in the failure of the EU's previous southern neighbourhood policy, which was known as the Barcelona Process.
The co-chairs of the new union, Sarkozy and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, also acknowledged that peace was vital for the economic and social development of the region.
"The money is there, what we are lacking is peace," said Sarkozy.
"The problem is not funding, what we need is trust. Then investment will follow," Mubarak added.
In Paris, leaders also reached painstaking compromises on statements regarding the fight against terrorism and on the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East.
"The parties shall pursue a mutually and effectively verifiable Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, chemical and biological, and their delivery systems," their declaration said, adding that they would also consider "practical steps" to prevent proliferation.
Israel is the only Middle Eastern nation that is widely believed to have nuclear weapons, while Iran is suspected of actively pursuing the construction of such arms.
The Union for the Mediterranean was conceived by Sarkozy as a means of fostering economic and political ties with the EU's south.
It was initially resisted by Germany and by its eastern allies amid concerns that it would distract the bloc from further eastern expansion.
"(Angela) Merkel has been a decisive partner and friend," said Sarkozy in a tribute to the German chancellor at the conclusion of the summit.
The Mediterranean Union aims to attract private funds as a supplement to the billions of money already earmarked by the EU for the project.
The EU's executive, the European Commission, says it has already spent some eight billion euros on its southern neighbours between 1995 and 2007, and plans to invest a further nine billion euros over the next six years.
It also gives the south a stronger voice than what the Barcelona Process did, through a co-chairmanship. Its first presidents are France, as the current holder of the EU's rotating presidency, and Egypt.
The meeting failed to resolve a series of technical issues, postponing a decision until a foreign ministers' meeting in November.
Prior to its launch, pressure groups such as Amnesty International had urged the EU not to trade closer economic ties for human rights.
The final declaration agreed on Sunday spoke of the leaders' ambition to "build a common future based on the full respect of democratic principles, human rights and fundamental freedoms."
Ahead of the launch in Paris, Sarkozy held joint talks with Olmert and Abbas, who spoke of their hopes of moving closer to peace.
"We have never been so close to an agreement than today," Olmert said of the Middle East peace process.
Sarkozy said the fact that old foes were sitting together around the same table was an "historic" event.
"We are learning to like, rather than hate, each other," the president had said ahead of the launch.
[dpa / Expatica]