43 nations creating Mediterranean union

By: AP
By: AP

PARIS (AP) -- French President Nicolas Sarkozy urged the disparate and conflicted countries around the Mediterranean Sea on Sunday to make peace as European rivals did in the 20th century as he launched an unprecedented Union for the Mediterranean.

"The European and the Mediterranean dreams are inseparable," he told leaders from more than 40 nations in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. "We will succeed together; we will fail together."

The union Sarkozy championed as a pillar of his presidency brought together around one table for the first time dignitaries such rival nations as Israel and Syria, Algeria and Morocco, Turkey and Greece.

Coping with age-old enmities involving their peoples and others along the Mediterranean shores will be a central challenge to the new union encompassing some 800 million people.

"We will build peace in the Mediterranean together, like yesterday we built peace in Europe," Sarkozy said. He insisted the new body would not be "North against south, not Europe against the rest ... but united."

Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, co-presiding the summit with Sarkozy, said: "We are linked by a common destiny."

He said the union has better chances of success than a previous cooperation process launched in Barcelona in 1995 because the new body focuses on practical projects parallel to efforts toward Mideast peace.

Mubarak called on the new union to tackle reducing the wealth "gap" between north and south, and cited other southern Mediterranean "challenges" as education, food safety, health and social welfare.

"The success of the Union will depend on ... reforms and durable development," Mubarak said.

A draft declaration obtained by The Associated Press shows that summit participants will announce "objectives of achieving peace, stability and security" in the region. The six firm measures it names are things such as a region-wide solar energy project, a cross-Mediterranean student exchange program and a plan to clean up the polluted sea.

The draft declaration says the Union for the Mediterranean is to be operational by the end of this year, and unlike any previous body, it will be jointly run by all its members. It will have a dual presidency, held jointly for rotating terms by one country within the European Union and one country on the Mediterranean shore.

The draft also speaks of democratic principles, human rights and fundamental freedoms - values Western critics have accused such union members as Syria of violating.

The Union for the Mediterranean is Sarkozy's brainchild and was timed to coincide with the French presidency of the European Union. Paris holds the rotating post until the end of this year.

But Sarkozy's ambitious plan overlapped with EU 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 than for any immediate progress it is expected to achieve.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said: "We are closer than ever to a possible (peace) agreement today" with the Palestinians - and said he hoped for direct contacts "soon" with enemy Syria.

Earlier Sunday, 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.

On Saturday, Sarkozy played super-envoy, securing a preliminary agreement between the Syrian and Lebanese presidents that they would open embassies in each others' countries for the first time.

Tensions between Lebanon and Syria, which dominated its smaller neighbor for decades, are one of the thorns in Mediterranean unity.

On Sunday morning, Sarkozy met with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had shown reticence about coming to the summit. The leadership of the mostly Muslim country fears that the Mediterranean grouping is designed to keep Turkey out of the full EU membership that it seeks.

The Mediterranean gathering will be capped Monday with more than dozen leaders attending France's national Bastille Day military parade as special guests.

The new union is to include at least 43 nations, nearly all of which sent a president or prime minister to the summit. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi objected to the whole idea and refused to come.

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Associated Press writers Alfred de Montesquiou, Elaine Ganley and Amy Teibel contributed to this report.

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