Some 40 heads of state from the Middle East, North Africa and Europe gather in Paris next Sunday to launch a new agreement aimed at reinforcing cooperation between the European Union and non-European nations bordering the Mediterranean. Building up trade and investment ties is a key part of the proposal. For VOA, Lisa Bryant takes a look at the economic stakes from the French Mediterranean port city of Marseille.
The southern seaside city of Marseille has long been known as the gateway to North Africa, which lies just across the sparkling Mediterranean. Now, the colorful, multi-ethnic hub is jostling for a new title as the showcase for a new partnership agreement between the European Union, North African and Middle Eastern countries.
The city is in the midst of a massive urban renewal project that includes building new housing and office space, revamping blighted neighborhoods and giving its oceanfront a facelift. The overhaul aims to draw new business from across the Mediterranean region - and, politicians like Guy Teissier, hope to make Marseille the obvious choice as headquarters for the new Mediterranean partnership.
Teissier is a French deputy and local mayor, who is also president of Marseille's urban renewal project.
Teissier says Marseille has all it takes to be a leader in the Mediterranean region. It has universities and superb technology and research centers - and its population reflects the diversity of the Mediterranean region.
The new Euro-Mediterranean pact has been championed by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, which took over the rotating European Union presidency this month. It follows another 1995 agreement called the Barcelona Process, which critics say has not produced much by way of concrete results.
The new Mediterranean union is also generating criticism. Some consider it vague and already watered down by Germany's opposition to some of Mr. Sarkozy's objectives.
Countries like Algeria and Libya have expressed reservations about the partnership, and Israel's membership makes the pact politically volatile. Overall, says analyst Clara O'Donnell, of the Center for European Reform in London, the expectations of many Middle Eastern and North African countries have been dashed.
"They're upset because the way it was sold to them was as a very ambitious proposal," she said. "And they saw it being undermined from within the EU, so they didn't even have a say.
Nor does O'Donnell believe the partnership will generate much by way of new trade and investment within the Mediterranean region.
"The one positive thing about it is that it has put the Mediterranean back at the top of the agenda," she added. "It's true that Barcelona [process] was lingering, there was lack of impetus. Now, the Mediterranean is number one again. There is a return of political will."
But during a recent visit to Marseille, EU external affairs commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner argued the partnership offered new chances for cooperating in areas like environmental protection, renewable energy and infrastructure programs.
"We have been working on a process call Barcelona," she said. "And now we reinvent, we re-dynamize, we put a new political pulse into this Barcelona process by having the summit every two years. And in between by having meetings by ministers of foreign affairs. And having a co-president - that means a shared responsibility - which wasn't there [before]. And particularly, by regional projects."
A number of business leaders are also excited about investment and trade potential in the Mediterranean, although they worry about legal and other barriers to investing in southern Mediterranean countries. At a conference in Marseille, they called on members of the new partnership to increase exchanges between European and Mediterranean countries by 10 percent a year and to triple foreign investment by 2020.
For Liat Shaham of Invest in Israel, an Israeli government agency, it means creating business ties in countries where diplomatic relations are rocky.
"Right now [there] is not so much investment from Arab countries," Shaham said. "This is part of the project. This project is supposed to bring us together - via the economy, I guess. To build bridges in countries via economic relations."
Hanan Jaabiri, 29, of Marseille, who also attended the conference, has big expectations for her new company, Jaabiri Exports.
"I met several people from Europe, from the U.S. and from the Gulf who are interested in exporting their goods throughout the region. The main problem is the language. For instance, Spanish exporters are not so able to develop in the Maghreb countries so I help them find customers and partners there and help them increase their presence on the market and get marketers."
Jaabiri, whose father is Tunisian and whose mother is Spanish - speaks five languages and is a mirror of multi-ethnic Marseille.
Marseille's bid to host the new Mediterranean pact headquarters faces competition. Several countries, including Morocco, Tunisia and Malta, have reportedly expressed interest. Whether Marseille will be the new face of the Mediterranean union - and whether that union will live up to the very high expectations of its supporters - is anybody's guess.