Nicolas Sarkozy launched the Union for the Mediterranean at the weekend with the pomp and drama that befits his grand vision of an era of co-operation between the European Union and countries on the other side of the Mediterranean.

Most leaders of Mediterranean countries and European states dutifully showed up in Paris to celebrate the birth of the union.

The French president’s hope of a handshake at least, if not a meeting, between the rehabilitated Bashar al Assad of Syria and Israel’s Ehud Olmert never materialised. But he did use the occasion to extract a Syrian promise to open an embassy in Lebanon – no small achievement given that Damascus has never fully come to terms with the sovereignty of its smaller neighbour.

Putting aside Mr Sarkozy’s satisfaction, however, it is doubtful that the leaders of the EU and those of the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean left Paris convinced they had set the stage for a much deeper relationship.

The union is designed to build on the 1995 Euro-Mediterranean initiative known as the Barcelona process. It does provide a welcome refocus of European attention on the Mediterranean, particularly the strategic countries of North Africa. The latter is a region that is rich in oil and gas but still weighed down by authoritarianism, socio-economic problems and security threats.

But the union’s lofty ambitions were watered down long before its celebratory start on Sunday. Germany balked at the initial French idea, which seemed suspiciously designed to use EU funds for a new grouping that served Paris’s interests and included only countries bordering the Mediterranean. Turkey also at first saw it as a scheme to offer a feeble alternative to EU membership.

After a series of compromises, the union ended up as a crowded group of no fewer than 40 countries, including all EU states and a diverse collection of Mediterranean countries from the Balkans to North Africa. It was also turned into an extra chapter in an expanded Barcelona process, rather than the new direction Mr Sarkozy had in mind.

The projects now envisioned – sea and road highways, cleaning up the Mediterranean, developing solar energy – are laudable but not the answer to the pressing needs of some of the southern neighbours.

This is the right time for Europe to reinvigorate the Barcelona process. The US has been competing for the attention of North Africa, traditionally under French influence.

Barcelona has not been a complete failure. Under it the EU used financial incentives to promote economic reform in southern Mediterranean states. That encouraged European investors – and more recently companies from the oil-rich Gulf – to pour capital into the economies of countries such as Morocco, Egypt and Algeria.

But the plan was conceived when the Middle East was basking in the promise of the Oslo peace accords between Palestinians and Israelis. As the peace process collapsed, so did the Euro-Med initiative’s aim to create a multilateral forum for economic co-operation between Arabs and Israelis.

Other objectives also faltered. Southern countries have failed to increase trade with each other, and the free trade zone envisioned for 2010 looks unattainable. Nor did the Euro-Med initiative do much to ease the flow of migration into Europe, dilute the appeal of radical Islam, or promote human rights.

Mr Sarkozy recently lavished praise on Tunisia, one of the worst human rights offenders in the region. Speaking to Tunisian students in April, the French president criticised Barcelona and promised that the Union for the Mediterranean would rectify the initiative’s failings by giving more ownership of the process to the south. What seemed a European dictated plan would be replaced with real co-operation. The union would “change the world”, he said.

Realistically, though, it will be a big achievement if the union simply rekindles the EU’s political interest in its Mediterranean neighbours and encourages more private investment into the region.

Get alerts on Columnists when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article