France will on Sunday (13 July) launch the Union for the Mediterranean – the brainchild of President Nicolas Sarkozy, which will bring together EU member states and a number of North African and Middle East countries.
"Do you know how moving it is for us to see the Arab heads of state sitting at the same table as the Israeli head of state, in a European capital?" Mr Sarkozy told journalists on Thursday.
"For me, the presence of all these European and Mediterranean heads of state in Paris in the name of Europe and the Mediterranean is something deeply moving and it’s the best news for peace in the Middle East … I hope we will be able to note a number of advancements," he added.
But there is already skepticism about what the new union can achieve after the original most exclusive and grander vision by Mr Sarkozy was watered down, predominantly at Berlin’s behest.
In addition, up until the last minute, there was uncertainty over some leaders’ attendance at the summit.
After much foot-dragging, Algeria and Turkey both finally confirmed this week that they will be present. But Jordan’s King Abdullah has declined the invitation for personal reasons, while Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi – who has called it "another Roman empire" and spoken of its "imperialist design" – will also not attend.
The Union for the Mediterranean was proposed by France last year to boost economic, political and cultural ties with the EU’s southern neighbors.
In March, the bloc’s leaders agreed on a final and more general version of the project, which is to include 44 countries – the EU’s 27 members, plus Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey – as well as Mauritania, Monaco, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Albania.
The launch will be co-presided over by Mr Sarkozy and Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, in Paris’ grandiose glass-domed Grand Palais.
Already there has been some tension about what the summit can and should achieve, however.
In June, Arab leaders voiced concern about what it would mean for them to participate in the high-level meeting together with Israel, fearing it would imply a normalization of bilateral relations.
Turkey has also expressed reluctance since the beginning, fearing the project would be an alternative for its EU membership bid. But the French government, which remains set against Turkey’s full membership in the EU, has sought to work out the differences between the two sides.
Turkish daily Zaman on Friday (11 July) quotes a senior Turkish diplomat as saying: "When Turkey’s place is mentioned in the final declaration, we want Turkey to be defined as ‘Turkey, which is conducting membership negotiations with the EU’ … And we have already received a positive signal on this matter."
Critics of the Mediterranean Union also note that controversial issues such as immigration and terrorism have been left out of the scope of the new set-up.
They also question its added value when compared to the current Barcelona Process – an initiative started in 1995 with similar ambitions to the new project, but which has stalled due to political apathy.