Will North Africa gain from closer ties to Europe?
ROME: It is the original sea of epics, crossed by Ulysses on his journey home and Aeneas on his way to founding what became Rome. So it is natural for European leaders to cast their actions in the Mediterranean in grand terms.
The latest example comes from France's new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, whose efforts to move Europe, not to mention French arms industries, closer to northern Africa are being presented within a vision of a new union of nations along the Mediterranean.
Europe - France and Italy in particular - has trouble integrating Muslim immigrants and worries about Islamic extremists. So, under this grand vision, efforts would be made to invest in and give favorable trade terms to North African states. In theory, these nations would become richer over time, and their people would have fewer incentives to leave.
That idea, of a Mediterranean Union, has been circulating around Europe for more than a decade, offered up by various European leaders. Sarkozy moved it to the forefront again in May, in his victory speech after winning the French presidency.
"The time has come," he said, "to build together a Mediterranean Union that will be the bridge between Europe and Africa."
The notion is beguiling: rich and poor nations, democratic and not, Muslims and Christians, from North Africa and Asia Minor and the Middle East and Western Europe, lashed together to form a richer and safer region.
It will probably never happen, at least not in the formal way Sarkozy and other European leaders have envisaged.
Still, the project remains a useful lens for seeing how Europe is focusing more tightly on its backyard to solve immediate problems: Muslim immigration, crime and terror, and Russia's politicization of its energy supplies.
Take the recent events involving the region's most troublesome member, Libya.
Last month, Sarkozy's wife swooped into Libya to help free five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor held there for eight years on charges, widely regarded as trumped up, of infecting children with HIV. Nicolas Sarkozy visited the next day. Then, on Friday, France announced an arms deal with Libya worth a reported $402 million.
Everyone seemed to walk away happy: Sarkozy burnished his credentials as a can-do, out-of-the-box achiever (though the French opposition called the arms deal unseemly, so soon after the medical workers' release). French industry found new customers. And the deal, no doubt, did not hurt French oil interests already investing there. Libya and its leader, Muammar el-Qaddafi, were able to take several steps out of the darkness of international isolation, without any concessions to changing how he runs the country.
If something similar happened on a wider scale, and with more formal structures, it might match the embryonic vision of Mediterranean integration that Prime Minister Romano Prodi of Italy has been talking about for years.
"It's something that is beneficial for them, but also for us," said Stefano Sannino, Prodi's top diplomatic adviser. "More stability, less danger of terrorism, less illegal immigration. Generally speaking, if your neighbor is wealthier, you are wealthier. If your neighbor is more stable, you are more stable."
Geoff Porter, a Middle East and Africa analyst for the Eurasia Group, which advises corporations on political risks, said, "The stick is tough immigration laws, the carrot is development in the countries where the immigrants come from."
For engaged European nations - mostly in the south, since non-Mediterranean countries like Germany tend to look east - there are other benefits: Oil and gas in Libya and Algeria could help insulate them from a less predictable Russia, while also benefiting their own oil companies.
For France, it is an opportunity to engage more muscularly in a largely French-speaking region that Paris still views as in its sphere of interest. Italy can assert its traditional role in Libya and work toward the greater diplomatic role it aspires to in the region.
Some experts argue, however, that it all sounds a little too convenient, and overlooks a variety of risks that are likely to make any Mediterranean Union far less a marriage between Europe and its southern neighbors than a very adult, long-term understanding. Most doubtful are Sarkozy's hopes for Turkey.
He opposes Turkey's efforts to join the European Union and hopes it would settle instead for membership, and a major role, in a Mediterranean Union. That is unlikely, and raises the question of whether a Mediterranean Union could be credible without Turkey (remember, Troy is there).
"It's a nonstarter for Turkey," said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and head of EDAM, a political research institute based in Istanbul. "Turkey believes that it has embarked on a very determined path which would take her toward full membership" in the EU, not some second-tier grouping.
"How are you going to develop this political body in a region where political developments - the state's respect for fundamental rights, democratic freedoms - are so different across the board?" Ulgen asked.
Then there is debate over whether investment like that envisioned by European nations really would raise living standards in northern Africa. Many experts argue that oil and gas development has a particularly bad track record in closing the gap between rich and poor.
Erik Jones, professor of European studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Bologna, said, "It's like Nigeria," which has Africa's largest oil reserves. "If Sarkozy's arguments were right, we would see many fewer Nigerian immigrants coming to Europe, and we see exactly the opposite," he noted.
Jones said he did not dispute the notion that investment could raise living standards, but only if it creates wealth beyond the elite. In the same way, Ulgen said that Turkey would not rule out a role in some Mediterranean body, but not at the cost of full EU membership.
In other words, maybe the way to bring a Mediterranean Union into being would be to make it a prelude, not an alternative, to joining the European Union.
But, of course, that would mean rethinking what it means to be part of Europe.