OXFORD, England — Maybe it is time to be a bit more generous to French President Nicolas Sarkozy and look at the outcome of what he does rather than the way he does it.

The original launch of the Mediterranean Union almost sank the whole enterprise. Appearing to speak without giving the issue much thought, Sarkozy initially proposed a club of European and mostly Arab states along the Mediterranean’s shore. It would have been in essence a French-run enterprise that the rest of Europe would have paid for. This did not go down well, particularly with the Germans.

Suspicion was strong that the French were trying to find a way to buy off Turkey with a relationship falling well short of European Union membership.

So the auguries for an attempt to revitalize Europe’s relationship with its Mediterranean partners were not good. But by the time of this month’s grand Paris Summit to send the new club on its way, initial suspicions had largely dissipated.

Sarkozy bowed to his European critics and enjoyed a diplomatic triumph. We shall soon see whether there is substance to the initiative, or whether it is just a coat of fresh paint on an old and tired idea.

The original Barcelona Process, launched in 1995, was an excellent scheme. Intended to provide an economic and political backdrop to peacemaking through confidence-building in the Middle East, it was an admirable recognition of Europe’s historical, commercial, cultural and political ties with its neighbors south of the sea, which have brought us all together over the years.

There were aspirations for a free-trade area by 2010. There were pledges of political integration based on shared values. There were people-to-people links. There was a forum where Israelis and their long-term Arab foes could sit together and discuss other matters than the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Development projects were funded through grants or cheap loans, and these have probably played at least some part in increasing the attractiveness of the Maghreb and the Mashraq to foreign investors.

There was some lowering of agricultural and other tariffs by the EU. Dialogue on political reform, and the euros to support it, helped further the process in some countries, notably Morocco and Jordan. There was some cooperation on common problems like illegal drug use and immigration.

Yet, the successes of the Barcelona Process were modest: a great idea on the launchpad had difficulty getting off the ground. So Sarkozy deserves at least 2 1/2 cheers for trying to revitalize it. But if the Mediterranean Union is to achieve more than was managed in its first manifestation, a number of things will need to happen.

First, Europe is better at talking about free-trade areas than delivering free trade. For example, there are still too many barriers to agricultural trade between the north and the south. And guess which country leads the opposition to any significant opening up of European agriculture. France, take a bow.

Second, however slow we have been in opening up a real Mediterranean market, the barriers to freer trade between Arab League countries are just as great.

Third, it was excellent that, in Paris, Sarkozy began the process of bringing Syria in out of the diplomatic cold. Hopefully, his attempts to act as a peace broker between West Bank Palestinians and Israel are also blessed with success.

But the truth is that Europe, for all the gallant efforts of Javier Solana, has been absent from serious politics in the Middle East. We have not dared cross the absentee monopolists of policy in Washington.

Europe should get more seriously involved, even at the risk of occasionally irritating America, which may be less likely to happen once the Bush administration is history.

For a start, we should recognize that there will be no political settlement in Palestine without including Hamas. What would incredibly have been former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s first visit to Gaza in his first year of peacemaking had to be canceled recently because of security concerns. Enough said.

Europe must decide how serious it is about all the admirable stuff in the Barcelona Process regarding pluralism, civil society, the rule of law and democracy. Should a shared concept of human rights be one of the foundations of our Mediterranean partnership?

If so, what are we in Europe proposing to do about it? If this is just blah-blah, better not say it. We discredit ourselves and important principles when we say things we don’t mean.

Lord Patten is a former governor of Hong Kong and European commissioner for external affairs. He is currently chancellor of Oxford University and co-chair of the International Crisis Group. © 2008 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)

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