||The Mediterranean, north and south, is forming a single economic unit: Europe should make it a powerful one
UNDER imperial Rome, the roads in cold, wet Britannia were no straighter than those in sweltering north Africa. The same sestertius could buy a lampful of oil. Across the southern Mediterranean and northern Europe alike, Latin was the lingua francaâ€”1,500 years before anyone had coined the term. Under the Treaty of Rome, however, the European Union has behaved as if the Med were a frontier, rather than an organising principle. As often as not, it has turned its back on the crescent that stretches from Morocco to Turkey, as a cradle of instability and terrorism. Sometimes the southern Medâ€™s main export has seemed to be boatloads of illegal immigrants.
This weekend at a summit in Paris Franceâ€™s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, wants to heal the rift. Some 40 heads of state and government from the EU and the southern and eastern Mediterranean will meet to create a new club, called the Union for the Mediterranean. Despite Mr Sarkozyâ€™s bombast, Club Med will have a modest start: the French propose a secretariat, which they will jointly head with Egypt, and money to help finance ventures on solar energy, anti-terrorism and the inevitable cultural exchanges.
Beyond the platitudes and projects lies the germ of a brilliant idea. Something is stirring around the Med as globalisation takes root. Growth and investment have leapt. There is a new openness to trade and foreign money. The members of Club Med no longer need to glower across the table at each other. Instead, there is the prospect of the youth and vigour of the southern Mediterranean combining with a rich, ageing north. Despite the recent surge, the southern Med still takes less than 10% of all the FDI from the EU. This offers a tantalising prospectâ€”though one reason why Club Med matters is that it is fraught with dangers.
The EU has looked south before, in an initiative called the Barcelona Process, which dates back 13 years and failed to live up to its promises. Hopes are higher today, however, because the politicians gathering in Paris are following a path that is increasingly well trodden by business (see article). FDI in the countries along the Mediterranean shore, from Morocco to Turkey, has grown six times since the turn of the century, to $59 billion in 2006â€”ahead of Latin Americaâ€™s Mercosur ($25 billion) and not far short of China ($69 billion). At the same time, the growth in the regionâ€™s GDP is running at 4.4% a yearâ€”slow by Chinaâ€™s standards, admittedly, but it has been accelerating as Europe has slowed.
Although Turkey, Israel and Egypt still dominate, most of the region has shared in this prosperity. Oil and gas are partly to thank, but investment is spread among financial services, telecoms, retailing and construction. Look at the car factory Renault and Nissan are planning in Morocco. Or the new container port outside Tangiers that will soon be bigger than Long Beach, on Americaâ€™s west coast. Much of the money comes from Europe, as did the â‚¬8.8 billion ($12.9 billion) Franceâ€™s Lafarge invested in Egyptian cement. But Americans are making aerospace parts; Arabs are spending petrodollars on property and construction; Brazilians are investing in fertilisers and textiles; Indians in IT and pharmaceuticals.
There is strength in such diversity, and there needs to be. The resurgent Med has a lot still to overcome. With exceptions, notably Israel, the region is plagued by poor infrastructure, an ill-educated workforce and unemployment. Unlike eastern Europe, which built trading links under communism, the Med countries barely trade with each other, so they lose the benefits of specialisation. And then there is the politics. The Europeans are right to look askance at the looming crisis of succession in Egypt, beleaguered Israel, unborn Palestine, divided Lebanon, fundamentalist Islam in Morocco, bombs in Algeria, Muammar Qaddafiâ€™s bizarre Libyan autocracy, the risk that the Turkish courts declare the ruling party unconstitutional. That unfinished list is already depressingly long.
The EU is not free of troubles either. Those who favour Turkeyâ€™s membership of the EU fear that Club Med is designed to fob it off with second-class citizenship. At first Mr Sarkozy schemed to include only the EU countries with a Mediterranean coastâ€”a ploy to create a French-dominated counterbalance to the apparently German-dominated east. After a vicious row with Angela Merkel, Germanyâ€™s chancellor, Mr Sarkozy agreed to include the entire EU. That was right, if only because Germany pays much of the EUâ€™s bills.
Sundayâ€™s summit matters, because it is a step towards healing such woundsâ€”and because it sets the tone. Will the Mediterranean union seize the moment, or will it be strangled by southern politics and European squabbles?
The first test is whether Mr Sarkozy is willing to see Club Med as more than a scheme to burnish French glory. If he wants the new union to thrive, he will have to accept that it is for everyoneâ€™s benefit, and let business do its work. This means a free-trade area that opens the EU to goods and services from the southâ€”including the farm produce that France is making a fuss over in the world trade talks.
The second is for the EU to use its patronage to boost spending on infrastructure, promote trade in the region and clean up politics. One lesson from eastern Europe is that, with incentives, countries will start to sort themselves out. For the Mediterranean, those incentives should include access to funds and markets. The logic of enlargement is that it could even include the faint possibility of membership of the EU itself (if the union were to admit non-Europeans). But none of that will count for much unless the southern Med chooses prosperity.
The world sometimes writes off Europe as the old continent, well past the vigour of youth and doomed to gentle decline; at the same time it condemns many of the teeming economies of the southern Med as chaotic backwaters. Old and young can make a powerful combination. The creation of the Union for the Mediterranean is hardly the rebirth of imperial Rome, but it may just be the start of something exciting.