MARSEILLE: Countries bordering the Mediterranean have edged closer to establishing their Euro-Med Union by finessing an Israeli-Arab dispute over the role of the Arab League.
The union – a pet project of French President Nicolas Sarkozy that is more ambitious in symbolism than content – is envisaged primarily as a forum for cooperation and dialogue. Unlike the similarly named European Union, the 43 countries from Europe, the Middle East and North Africa probably will not have open borders, common regulations or truly interlocked economies.
Still, the group is important to the participants as a bridge between Europe and its poorer neighbors.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, the host, declared the two-day meeting a success even though thorny issues, like the naming of a secretary-general, remained unresolved.
People said this wasn t going to be a success. It has been, Kouchner said Tuesday.
Under the agreement, the 22-member Arab league will participate in the new union as an observer but will not have voting rights, a condition sought by Israel. Israel and the Palestinian Authority will each hold deputy secretary general posts, giving them a stake in the success of the venture.
For a Europe that fears unchecked immigration from Africa and hostility from the Muslim world, the new organization is an important outreach program. And for some Europeans, by including Israelis and Palestinians – which both border the Mediterranean – it also offers a forum for European diplomacy.
Sarkozy, the founding force behind the organization, and his Egyptian counterpart, Hosni Mubarak, will decide on the secretary-general and the allocation of five to six deputy posts before the end of the year, Kouchner said.
The expanded union is expected to focus on mostly development-oriented projects, such as cleaning up the Mediterranean, creating new maritime and land highways and solar energy.
Kouchner s comments reflected the sense of diplomatic breakthrough, however modest and unrelated to the grander territorial disputes still unresolved.
The Israelis finally accepted the presence of the Arab League, Kouchner said. Israel will be accepted as deputy secretary-general of an international organization for the first time in history.
Barcelona was chosen as the headquarters of the fledgling union over Tunisia and the Mediterranean island nation of Malta.
France and Egypt will continue as co-chairs of the union for its first two years, with the Czech Republic joining during its six-month EU presidency beginning in January.