Algerian presence to boost Med Union launch

Algerian presence to boost Med Union launch

Reuters, Mon 7 Jul 2008

TOYAKO, Japan, July 7 (Reuters) – Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika will attend Sunday’s launch summit for French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s « Union for the Mediterranean », boosting prospects for the new project.

Sarkozy himself made the announcement after meeting Bouteflika at a Group of Eight summit in Japan on Monday.

Algeria has been critical of the union and Bouteflika’s participation at the Paris summit had been in doubt. A no-show by one of the region’s most influential leaders would have embarrassed Sarkozy and threatened to undermine the project.

Sarkozy announced the union as one of his flagship ideas after winning election last year, saying it would bring together the Mediterranean’s diverse nations in a European-style institution.

But the plan to draw on EU funds for a project that did not include EU states without a Mediterranean coast irked Germany and others, forcing Paris to water down the concept and broaden its membership.

Sarkozy invited the leaders of all the future member states to Sunday’s summit.

« President Bouteflika asked me to make the answer public. He will be present in Paris for the Union for the Mediterranean summit, » Sarkozy told reporters in Japan.

« It is extremely important because Algeria plays a central role. President Bouteflika has an experience, an authority, which make his presence around the table … essential for the summit’s success, » he added.

The only regional leader who is now expected not to come is Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.

Algeria, which won independence from France in 1962, has criticised changes to the project, which was originally to be called the Mediterranean Union.

« The (project) that was outlined to us in 2007 by President Sarkozy is no longer the one that is being presented to us today, » then Algerian Prime Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem told French newspaper Le Monde last month, shortly before being replaced by Ahmed Ouyahia.

« Today, it is a Union for the Mediterranean, not a Mediterranean Union, and its content remains vague, » Belkhadem said, adding that it should not be « a cover for a creeping normalisation of relations with Israel ». (Reporting by Emmanuel Jarry; writing by Francois Murphy in Paris, editing by Mark Trevelyan)