EU SPRING MEETING: MEDITERRANEAN UNION AND CLIMATE CHANGE THE BIG ISSUES OF THE AGENDA

Brussels, 13th and 14th March 2008 European Union leaders gathered for a two-days summit in Brussels which is set to cover climate change, the world economy and controversial French plans for a Mediterranean union.

On Friday, the meeting, which is being chaired by the EU's Slovenian presidency, will turn to the turmoil on the world's financial markets, aiming to boost confidence as the dollar plunges and oil prices continue to rise.

Last year EU states agreed to cut emissions by 2020 and increase the share of wind, solar, hydro and wave power in electricity output by the same date.

Next step: 13 July 2008 - The 'Union for the Mediterranean' gained its official launch at a special summit in Paris. EU leaders have asked the Commission to outline detailed arrangements for the launch event.

Climate

Failure to agree on the details by this time next year would delay EU laws and weaken the bloc in United Nations talks on curbing emissions with other countries in Copenhagen in November 2009. EU leaders are aware that other countries are also preparing their economies for tougher climate change rules to come into force after the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol.

The protocol, which aims to reduce greenhouse gases that cause climate change, ends in 2012.

Speaking to Italy's Il Sole 24 Ore newspaper, Jose Manuel Barroso, the European commission president, said: "The United States has started to invest in eco-technology and in renewable.

"When they decide to do it on a massive scale, it will be hard for Europe to compete, at least if it doesn't decide to step on the accelerator right now."

The leaders will receive a report by Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief and Benita Ferrero-Waldner, external relations commissioner, which says that "significant potential conflicts" are likely in years to come because of "intensified competition over access to, and control over, energy resources".

Mediterranean project

The summit approved the principle of a Union for the Mediterranean, proposed by France, to strengthen and further the Barcelona Process.

The plan will involve "all member states of the EU and the non-EU Mediterranean coastal states," said a statement from the two-day spring summit.

The statement said that the European Council asked the executive commission to present it the necessary proposals for defining the modalities of what will be called "Barcelona Process: Union for the Mediterranean" with a view to the summit which will take place in Paris on July 13.

As when the Barcelona Process was launched, it was a different time, now things have changed and EU needs to adapt. The Mediterranean Union was not to replace the Barcelona Process but to upgrade it.

The Barcelona Process was launched in 1995 to foster dialogue between EU member states and countries on the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean, including the Arab states (among them the Palestinian National Authority, but not Libya), Israel, Cyprus, and Turkey. The main aim of the process was to promote democratization, security and economic growth in the countries to Europe's south and east.

The prime minister noted that all EU member states would be involved in the process and work would begin in relevant departments within the EU to see if what should be added to the process.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed in his last year's election campaign to establish the Mediterranean Union stretching from Morocco to Turkey.

Germany rejected Sarkozy's original version of the plan, which was only to involve certain EU member states but be funded by EU money.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Sarkozy agreed on a compromise last week during a meeting in Hanover that all EU member states be involved in the plan.

“We are in favor of further developing the Barcelona process because it was slowing down and must be reactivated”, Merkel told reporters before the summit.

Under Sarkozy's plan, the union would have one secretariat, a joint north-south presidency, and periodical summit meetings.

The specific details of the plan are to be hammered out before a summit on July 13 in Paris under the French EU presidency to formally launch the Mediterranean Union.

About 39 countries, including 27 EU members and some 12 Mediterranean nations are to be covered in the union under discussion.

Some EU countries doubt the usefulness of creating a new structure for existing policies and many are also worried about how the project would be financed since a unanimous vote would be required for any EU funds to be used.

Britain and Scandinavian countries are notably sceptical about the project.

Other issues

Barroso also announced on Thursday that Croatia should be able to complete European Union membership talks in time to join the bloc in 2010.

After meeting Ivo Sanader, the Croatian prime minister, he said he had "every confidence" that the talks would be finished by the end of next year.

Croatia still has work to do in reforming its judiciary and public administration record to meet EU standards, Barroso said. But it has passed major hurdles in co-operating with the UN war crimes tribunal and, most recently, by suspending a fishing dispute with Slovenia and Italy.

"If Croatia fulfills its obligations I'm sure all member states will support" the candidacy, he said, adding that the commission would soon give Croatia a timetable for accession talks.

It was the first time an EU official has spoken of a concrete timetable for Croatia.

In Brussels, Sanader said that EU membership was an "absolute national interest" for Croatia.