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Europe

Mediterranean Union Launched Amid Hopes for Peace

The European Union on Sunday established closer ties with the Middle East and with its North African neighbors at a summit in Paris that was described by its European backers as a "historic" success.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Nicolas Sarkozy

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak will co-chair the union with French President Sarkozy at the beginning

"This is a historic contribution for the future of Europe and the future of the Mediterranean," said European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso after the formal launch of the Union for the Mediterranean.

"A major initiative is born, and now we have to nurture it and go further," added the meeting's host, French President Nicolas Sarkozy. He urged the Mediterranean states to emulate Europe's model of reconciliation and cooperation.

"Everyone will have to make an effort, as the Europeans did, to put an end to the deadly spiral of war and violence, that, century after century, repeatedly brought barbarity to the heart of civilization," he said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel

German Chancellor Angela Merkel demanded action, not just words from Syria

Leaders of the EU and of its southern neighbors agreed Sunday to a joint declaration accompanying the creation of the union, a breakthrough which came after heads of state and government from 43 countries, among them Israel, Syria and the Palestinian territories, overcame their differences over a reference to the Middle East peace process.

Unlike its draft version, the final declaration approved in Paris made explicit references to the Annapolis peace conference and to a meeting of EU and Mediterranean foreign ministers in Lisbon last year.

The leaders further "recall that peace in the Middle East requires a comprehensive solution and in this regard welcome the announcement that Syria and Israel have initiated indirect peace talks under the auspices of Turkey."

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, were among the leaders attending the summit, which was held in the glass-roofed halls of Paris' Grand Palais, by the Champs Elysees.

Calls for peace among old foes

Sarkozy had earlier opened the founding summit meeting of the Union for the Mediterranean with an appeal for peace.

French President Sarkozy shakes hands with Palestinian President Abbas, left, and Israel's Prime Minister Olmert in Paris

French President Nicolas Sarkozy called the launch a "dream come true"

"The nations along the Mediterranean, and those who are not, share a common interest: that peace and stability reign on the Mediterranean," Sarkozy told heads of state and government from the European Union and from countries along the Mediterranean Basin.

"The success and failure of everything we undertake with each other will depend first and foremost on the ability of each and every one of us to truly share," Sarkozy said. "This means building increasingly close solidarity, with respect for one another."

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who will co-chair the union with Sarkozy during its initial phase, said the EU should help promote growth in the Mediterranean or face a massive influx of immigrants in the future.

Nicolas Sarkozy

French President Nicolas Sarkozy called the launch a "dream come true"

"What will be the situation in the Mediterranean, in particular on the southern shores, in 2030 or 2050? And what consequences will that have on our partners on the northern shores?" he said, noting that the area's population was projected to grow from the current 272 million to 332 million in 2020.

The draft joint declaration being discussed in Paris contained sensitive passages on the need to prevent religion from being associated with terrorism, and calls for a nuclear-free Middle East.

Israel is the only Middle Eastern country which is widely believed to have a nuclear arsenal.

Revamping 'Barcelona'

Tough negotiations also took place on the exact scope and power structure of the union, which Sarkozy devised as a means of revamping the EU's 13-year-old southern neighborhood policy, which is known as the Barcelona Process.

The EU's executive, the European Commission, says it has already spent some 8 billion euros ($12.7 billion) on Barcelona between 1995 and 2007, and plans to invest a further 9 billion euros over the next six years.

But officials in Brussels concede that it has failed to deliver. The new union hopes to attract private investors by focusing on concrete projects.

Among them are plans for "motorways of the sea," a belt of solar power plants, a programme to help cope with natural disasters, and the creation of an agency to promote medium-sized businesses.

It also gives the south a stronger voice through a co-chairmanship. Its first presidents are France, as the current holder of the EU's rotating presidency, and Egypt.

Ahead of the launch in Paris, Sarkozy held joint talks with Olmert and Abbas, who spoke of their hopes of moving closer to peace.

"We have never been so close to an agreement than today," Olmert said of the Middle East peace process.

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