(photo credit: AP [file])
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Friday he won "unanimous" backing for his plan to forge closer political ties with Europe's North African and Mideast neighbors on the Mediterranean Sea.
The agreement came at the end of the first day of a two-day EU summit, but the specific details of the plan will still have to be worked out by June, other leaders said.
The project would involve 39 partners - the 27-nation EU plus a dozen on the Mediterranean's southern shores, from Mauritania to Algeria, Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian Authority to Syria and Turkey.
Sarkozy told reporters that his project "was taken up with great enthusiasm," despite initial and widespread concern that his grand scheme would do little to add to already existing EU outreach programs in the region.
He said his plan - which was watered down to appease opponents - was presented to the EU leaders jointly with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had been the plan's biggest critic in recent months.
Germany had been concerned the project would excessively boost Paris' influence, while Berlin and other EU nations footed the bill.
Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek said key details as to what the role of the plan will be were far from clear or agreed to and questioned whether Sarkozy was working to better the EU or just his own national aims.
"It is obvious that Sarkozy wants to make a name for himself during the French presidency and focus on a subject in which he has an economic interest," Topolanek said. "Had we voted on it today it would definitely not have gone through. I am somewhat skeptical."
Merkel led widespread concerns over earlier drafts of Sarkozy's plan which limited membership of the so-called Union of the Mediterranean to the EU's southern states - France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece - while the forum would benefit from the EU's overall funds.
Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker said all leaders agreed to "give more volume" to EU ties with the Mediterranean region, including a name change that could blow new life into existing policies. Most EU leaders agree that the bloc needs to do more to promote political and economic reforms on their southern flanks amid fears the region remains susceptible to extremists and terrorism.
Juncker said however, that the leaders did not agree on adding extra EU cash for the project.
Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa, who was chairing the summit talks said the plan would not seek to introduce new aims, notably on solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"The objective is not solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," Jansa said.
Sarkozy and Merkel jointly presented the project appealing to the EU to "initiate a new stage for cooperation" between Europe and its southern neighbors, according to a copy of the project
The plan outlines the creation of a joint presidency, with one EU member and one non-EU member state assisted by a permanent staff of 20 bureaucrats. But it is vague on who would pay for such a "Club Med" and what specific coordinated projects the two sides would work on.
The paper suggests launching the project at a July 13 EU summit in Paris, which would make it the highlight of France's turn at the helm of the six-month, rotating EU presidency.
After opposing the plan, Merkel said Thursday she could see the need to revitalize EU ties with its Mediterranean neighbors but cautioned that "the money we spend is used wisely."
Other EU nations, including Austria, Spain, Italy and Britain, were annoyed with what some saw as Sarkozy's attempt to ram through a policy they see little use for, given that the EU already has a 2-billion-euro-a-year ($3 billion) aid program for its Mediterranean neighbors.
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said he could broadly support the plan but said the EU should at the same time commit to "a European perspective" - eventual EU membership for Ukraine. Poland is keen to get Ukraine into the EU.
Diplomats said elements of Sarkozy's plan have been so watered down that they are basically the same as existing EU policies for the region like the so-called "Euromed" program, launched in 1995 in Barcelona, Spain, to foster economic, political and social reforms in the Middle East and North Africa.
That program also aims to create a Euro-Mediterranean free trade area by 2010. But progress has been disappointing due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the refusal of many Arab states to abide by international human rights standards.
In the 10 years up to 2005, the EU has doled out 20 billion euros ($30 billion) in grants and soft loans to the region.
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