If this week's summit of G8 leaders showed the limits – the sheer emptiness, indeed – of meetings of world leaders at global level, France's president Nicolas Sarkozy seems determined to do the same for European summitry at tomorrow's meeting of EU and North African leaders. The idea of a new Union for the Mediterranean combining the Europe of the south with the Arabs of North Africa and the Turks, Israelis and Levantines of the East was Mr Sarkozy's prime foreign policy proposal during the French presidential campaign. Now he has made it his first initiative of France's turn as president of Europe.
In conceptual terms – ever the forte of the French – it has its attractions. The existing drive towards closer relationships with North Africa in the Barcelona process of 1995 has run into the sands. New vigour, new life is the argument of the Elysée. Only it suffers from all the problems of the last efforts. Barely had Mr Sarkozy first mooted his pet project than the Germans objected on the grounds that this was a blatant misuse of EU muscle, and finance, on a francophone project. Britain was suspicious (rightly so) that the idea was a subtle means of burying Turkey's application for EU membership in a much wider arm's-length agreement with all Muslim Mediterranean states.
Libya and Algeria expressed fears that the new union was just a means of reasserting French colonial ambitions in North Africa and of keeping the pressures of immigration into southern Europe at bay. Other Arabs were suspicious that, by inviting Israel, the project was a means to push Mr Sarkozy's hopes of integrating Israel into a wider Europe. Human rights remain conspicuous by their absence from the agenda. And worries that this was all a French plot under European disguise were hardly allayed by the choice of initial co-operation schemes – solar power, nuclear energy and cleaning up the sea – in all of which French industrial presence is strong.
With so many doubts, tangible progress in the talks is unlikely. There may be side benefits. The summit might provide the opportunity for Syria and Israel to pursue bilateral talks. But the distinctly nationalistic purpose of this whole exercise bodes ill for the French EU presidency at a time when – with a recession threatening and stalled European momentum – a sense of cohesion and a co-operative drive to the future are desperately needed.