Forty-three nations home to 800 million people were set Sunday to join in a Union for the Mediterranean, a vast though vague body its boosters hope can nudge this disparate and conflicted swath of the world toward peace and stability.
Israeli, Syrian and Palestinian leaders were among those attending an unprecedented gathering on the River Seine in Paris. Coping with age-old enmities involving their peoples and others along the Mediterranean shores will be a central challenge to the new union.
France’s foreign minister urged the countries to unite to deal with global warming, growing migration and shrinking water and energy resources. “To do nothing would be a risk. We are fragile. Our world is fragile. Latent tensions and growing disparities are too dangerous for this unstable epoch. We have everything to gain by reinforcing our ties,” Bernard Kouchner said to fellow foreign ministers from across Europe, West Asia and Africa.
The ministers were meeting in the grandiose Grand Palais abutting the Seine River. Later on Sunday, presidents or prime ministers of 43 countries were to hold a summit here, presided by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The Union for the Mediterranean is Sarkozy’s brainchild, originally devised as a pillar of his presidency and of France’s leadership of the European Union. France holds the rotating EU post until the end of this year.
But Sarkozy’s ambitious plan overlapped with European Union projects already in progress, and it was melded into EU efforts and expanded to include 27 members of the European Union, not just those on the Mediterranean coast.
Sunday’s meeting was seen as more significant for the bodies gathered the Israeli and Syrian leaders, for example, have never before sat at the same table than for any immediate progress it is expected to achieve.
The modest measures on the table include a region-wide solar energy project, a cross-Mediterranean student exchange programme and a plan to clean up the polluted sea.