This year, on 13 July, marks the fifteenth anniversary of the establishment of the Union for the Mediterranean, as the only existing intergovernmental organization to provide a framework for political dialogue and cooperation that brings together northern and southern Mediterranean states on an equal footing, including Israel and Palestine. In this period, the UfM has not only been consolidated as an institution with no regional alternative but, more importantly, it has upheld any flair of collateral multilateralism that remains in the Mediterranean region. Nonetheless, the UfM’s impact on the ground is severely hampered by a limited political mandate and human and economic resources.
Fifteen years after the then French President Nicolas Sarkozy convened the first (and last) Euro-Mediterranean Summit of Heads of States and Government in Paris in 2008, much has occurred in the region. In spite of the evolving global and regional geopolitical context, the outlook in 2023 has very little in common with that of 2008, as did the situation in 2015, if compared with that of 2008 and 2023, respectively. In this time span, the UfM has only adopted one strategic document at the level of ministers of foreign affairs that provides political guidance and enhances the mandate of the institution. It was adopted during the 2nd Regional Forum of Ministers of Foreign Affairs on 23 January 2017and was structured around four areas of action (Union for the Mediterranean, 2017, p. 5):
- Enhancing political dialogue amongst the member states;
- Ensuring the contribution of UfM activities to regional stability and human development;
- Strengthening regional integration;
- Strengthening UfM capacity for action.
The document sought to clarify the mandate, objectives and instruments at the disposal of the UfM, while also attempting to expand the mandate of the organization to specific topics that were not directly part of its remit, as laid down in the Paris Declaration of 2008, such as security and migration. Mobilizing the political will needed among member states to adopt the UfM Roadmap in 2017 was notoriously difficult, given the initial, fierce opposition from members such as Algeria, Egypt and Lebanon, especially when it came to including new, sensitive topics. More than six years after the endorsement of such a strategic document, the glass is still half empty, although it would be unfair not to recognize the progress achieved in a number of relevant domains.
Overall, in recent years, the UfM has, in particular, managed to enhance political dialogue and cooperation in a number of new areas that are equally relevant to regional cooperation, as well as continuing to address a number of human and sustainable development challenges in the region by convening regional dialogue platforms involving public decision-makers and stakeholders and working groups on issues such as climate change, youth, water, gender and civil protection. But it has failed in fully tackling the regional integration dossier, beyond the remarkable publication of the very first comprehensive report that examines progress made in the field. It has also unequivocally failed in curving the limited operational capacities of its Secretariat based in Barcelona – including its capacity to implement impactful UfM-labelled projects -, despite the huge efforts undertaken by its Secretaries General and the Secretariat staff. Table 3 signals the degree of accomplishment of the various objectives outlined in the UfM Roadmap for Action.
TABLE 3 Degree of Achievement of the Objectives Outlined in the UfM Roadmap for Action (2017-2023)
Regional dialogue and political cooperation frameworks have undoubtedly become the cornerstone of the UfM and its raison d’être. As shown in Table 4, it is only between 2017 and 2023 that the UfM has managed to substantially increase the number of ministerial meetings and regional dialogue platforms. In this regard, 16 new sectoral ministerial meetings have been convened, in addition to the traditional ministerial meetings of foreign affairs in Barcelona, which have taken place on an annual basis – seven in total since 2017 -, and since 2020, back-to-back with the EU Southern Neighbourhood ministerial meetings. Furthermore, two new ministerial formats have been established, namely Research and Innovation and Higher Education, and the ministerial meetings on Employment and Labour, Strengthening the Role of Women in Society and Trade are now convened on a regular basis, showing the interest that member states and EU institutions allocate to these particular domains.
Notwithstanding that political cooperation at the ministerial and technical levels has been reinforced, two fundamental challenges remain and should, consequently, be addressed: (1) the difficulty in implementing ministerial declarations and the absence of indicators to monitor the performance of such implementation on the ground; and (2) the utility and format of the UfM Regional Forum, with its ministerial segment, which is often perceived as an iteration of similar -often read- interventions from ministers of foreign affairs rather than a forum where frank exchange and dialogue can be held in order to give political guidance and collectively build on achievements. Similarly, UfM Regional Fora have progressively neglected the possibility to involve the broader Mediterranean stakeholders’ community and organized civil society.
TABLE 4 List of UfM Ministerial Meetings (until December 2023) by Competence Area
Fifteen Years of the UfM: Food for Impact
On the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the institution and the turnover of the southern co-presidency scheduled to be effective next year, the UfM initiated a process of reflection on how to “considerably strengthen its role, functioning and efficiency.” An initial brainstorming session took place during the UfM Senior Officials meeting in Barcelona on 28 February 2023, which was followed by a UfM Senior Officials retreat on 23 May 2023 in Barcelona and two ad-hoc group meetings on UfM reform on 19 June and 26 June 2023. The forthcoming meeting of UfM Senior Officials in Brussels on 4 October 2023 should adopt some conclusions based on the possible reform scenarios to be eventually endorsed by the UfM ministers of foreign affairs in the course of the 8th Regional Forum to be held in Barcelona on 27 November 2023. Furthermore, this process of reflection has been substantially nourished by several non-papers submitted by the UfM co-presidency, as well as the French, Spanish and Italian ministries of foreign affairs, among others. In particular, the French non-paper submitted on 17 May 2023 by the Inter-Ministerial Delegation for the Mediterranean is of the utmost importance as it gives a clear boost to the ambition of reforming the UfM to “benefit from a renewed and more ambitious mandate and strengthen its means of action so that it can achieve more ambitious objectives” (French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs, 2023, p. 1).
It is now time to further politicize the UfM as a means of providing the instruments and resources necessary to act, deliver and become visible: moving the UfM from the technocratic stage to the political arena
The goal of this reform process should be none other than reinvigorating the UfM, by bolstering its capacity to act and deliver, while triggering its visibility as the only existing Euro-Mediterranean intergovernmental organization and providing a framework for political dialogue and cooperation. It is now time to further politicize the UfM, not as a means of laying on the table conflicts that have stalled the region for decades, but as a means of providing the instruments and resources necessary to act, deliver and become visible: moving the UfM from the technocratic stage to the political arena (Albinyana, 2017, p. 220). In this context, there are at least four areas of intervention where institutional and operational mechanisms could be improved:
A) Deepening the political mandate. Although debate has pivoted around whether a certain decoupling exists between some of the priorities enshrined in the Paris Declaration of 2008 and today’s regional challenges, in recent years the UfM has been able to adapt to new regional challenges within a given constrained political mandate. The UfM has concentrated on issues such as the climate crisis, job creation, gender equality, youth, blue economy, civil protection, water cooperation, sustainable urban development or transport connectivity, some of which are part of the remit as laid down in the Paris Declaration, while others cannot be labelled in those precise terms.
Therefore, instead of opening up a debate on enlarging the scope of the UfM’s mandate to other fields, such as security and migration, which were already included in the UfM 2017 Roadmap for Action, but which did not offer notable results in the organization, the UfM should aim to deepen the current institutional mechanisms so as to generate more impactful results in the southern Mediterranean. The debate on enlarging the scope of the UfM’s mandate might revive traditional tensions amongst some southern Mediterranean countries that do not wish to see this mandate expanded, and may eventually hinder the institution’s cohesion.
Arguably, in order to deepen the institutional mechanisms, one must review how sectoral ministerial meetings and regional dialogue platforms are organized and what their roles are within the UfM institutional system. In this regard, sectoral ad-hoc Senior Official meetings should be regularly convened, prior to and after the ministerial meetings. Empowering these Senior Officials within their line ministries is key to ensuring an effective preparation for and follow-up of the ministerial meetings. Mechanisms to undertake an effective follow-up of the decisions agreed by ministers are relevant provided there are targets, deadlines and indicators to ensure commitments outlined in ministerial declarations are fully implemented, something that very seldomly occurs nowadays. In this vein, the role of regional dialogue platforms is equally important in securing not only an effective follow-up to ministerial declarations by national focal point, but also the possibility to engage various types of stakeholders (international organizations, private sector, experts and civil society representatives) in this process.
One option to start with could be to build these new institutional dynamics upon two or three ministerial formats that meet on a regular basis, such as Employment and Strengthening the Role of Women in Society. Both formats are high on the regional political agenda, enjoy strong support from EU institutions and UfM member states and, respectively, have regular and active regional dialogue platforms.
B) Upgrading the UfM Regional Forum. Although UfM ministerial meetings of foreign affairs have not always taken place regularly since the launch of the UfM in 2008 (Albinyana, 2017, p. 220), the truth is that, since 2015, those meetings have been convened on an annual basis, with the exception of 2016 (see Table 4), as the ministerial segment of the UfM Regional Forum. However, both the format of the ministerial meetings and the exchange with the Mediterranean stakeholders’ community and civil society representatives have not delivered the expected results.
Therefore, it would be advisable to structure these annual ministerial meetings around thematic and consecutive roundtables, whereby ministerial representatives are allowed to take stances, debate among themselves and propose policy solutions in one specific domain. To this end, some conclusions could be drawn from those debates, and thus provide concrete political guidance to the UfM, both to the UfM Secretariat and also to the various UfM sectoral ministerial formats and the regional dialogue platforms. Second, we need to go back to the idea enshrined in the UfM Roadmap for Action (Union for the Mediterranean, 2017, p. 25) in which the Regional Forum was not only conceived as a meeting of ministers, but also of the broader Euro-Mediterranean community of stakeholders, which encompasses the four additional UfM institutional bodies: the Euro-Mediterranean Regional and Local Assembly (ARLEM), the Economic and Social Councils, the Parliamentary Assembly and the Anna Lindh Foundation (and their national networks), as well as other non-UfM bodies, such as international financial institutions, bilateral development agencies, other international organizations (OECD, UNDP, UNEP, League of Arab States…), the private sector and trade union representatives. In this context, a suitable framework of representatives from Mediterranean youth and other civil society should also be included to make it as inclusive and broad as possible.
C) Aligning with the EU Southern Neighbourhood policy. The relations between EU institutions and the Secretariat of the UfM did not have an easy beginning (Albinyana, 2018, EuroMeSCo spot-on nº 4), due to the obvious inter-governmental nature of the institution, which minimized the role of the EU – in particular of the European Commission – in comparison with the role that the EC had exerted during the previous Barcelona Process. Nonetheless, over time, and after the EU was instated as the northern co-presidency in 2012, cooperation at the political and technical levels has been substantially improved and reinforced. It very much depends on the particular sectoral directorate-general of the EC and how much it prioritizes seizing opportunities to enhance regional cooperation with the Southern Neighbourhood, although most involved sectoral directorates-generaldo cooperate with the different divisions of the UfM Secretariat on a regular basis. Furthermore, the division on regional affairs in the EEAS and the unit on Regional Cooperation Neighbourhood South in DG NEAR diligently steer the UfM northern co-presidency. This cooperation can be exemplified in the preparatory process of the New Agenda for the Mediterranean in 2021, which paved the way for several references of the UfM in the final adopted strategy (European Commission, 2021, pp. 4, 9, 11, 21).
Lack of participation of the UfM in the operational side of the ENP south can be corrected by substantially increasing the EU funding allocated to the UfM under the Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument
It is worth noting that such a boost in cooperation has not translated into a meaningful role for the UfM in the operational part of the ENP’s regional envelope. Indeed, the EU has rightly delegated political cooperation at the regional level to the UfM, but little more. This lack of participation of the UfM in the operational side of the ENP south can be corrected by either substantially increasing the EU funding allocated to the UfM under the Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI), and/or, more interestingly, by placing under the umbrella of the UfM some of the remaining regional and cross-border cooperation programmes currently managed by DG NEAR directly or by managing authorities. To this end, while EU institutions, in particular the EC, should not lose control over their funds, the UfM should gain determinant decision-making power in how these regional cooperation funds are being spent. An EU pillar assessment procedure would greatly facilitate the UfM becoming a recipient of greater funds from the EU budget. In addition, the possibility for DG NEAR to second personnel of the European Commission to the UfM Secretariat, which has been the case since 2012 with its director of operations, does not prevent the Commission from seconding additional staff, while transferring the direct management of some of these regional cooperation funds.
Since 2010, the UfM has been labelling some 70 projects of a broad heterogenous nature. Labelling has become a symbolic act by which the 43 UfM member states endorse a project. However, in reality it does not entail any financial benefits (present or future) for a labelled project, thereby jeopardizing the whole concept of labelling and the regional impact of such projects. So, with the aim of making the labelling concept useful and viable, the UfM should be given a mandate to directly support labelled projects in both financial (via grants that help deliver results by upscaling and replicating these projects regionwide) and non-financial (via technical assistance) terms.
D) Boosting economic and human resources. Of all the proposals outlined in this article, the most pressing has to do with the economic and human resources allocated to the UfM. With an approximate annual budget of €8.5 million, the UfM relies on an extraordinarily low sum considering it is a multilateral organization with 43 member states. Increasing this amount by at least ten times over the mid to long term is imperative to ensure the functioning and effectiveness of the organization. Without this, even coming close to fulfilling a given mandate is simply inconceivable.
The contribution of the EC should be increased to at least equalize the contributions from the member states, not to mention the possibility of levering additional EC funds to directly fund projects and initiatives,
In this vein, the UfM budget is made up of contributions from the EC and member states on a voluntary basis. In 2022, 14 member states contributed to the budget in cash, with the highest contributions coming from France, Germany and Spain. In addition, 10 member states also contributed in kind through premises (Spain) and seconded personnel. Moreover, bilateral development agencies (GiZ, AECID and SIDA, to date) also contributed in grants. In order to substantially increase the UfM budget, it is imperative to set up a mandatory contribution system based on each country’s GDP, which allows every member state to contribute fairly to the functioning of the organization. Also, the contribution of the EC should be increased to at least equalize the contributions from the member states, not to mention the possibility of levering additional EC funds to directly fund projects and initiatives, as pointed out above. Finally, multi-annual grants provided by bilateral development agencies should continue and be expanded to other national agencies. Eventually, the UfM Secretariat would need to triple its current technical staff base working in the different divisions in order to absorb this increase of funds and use them to generate concrete, tangible and especially impactful actions and results in the region.
 See the UfM Paris Declaration of 2008: https://ufmsecretariat.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/ufm_paris_declaration1.pdf.
 See the UfM Roadmap for Action of 2017: https://ufmsecretariat.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/UfM-Roadmap-for-action-2017.pdf.
 Notwithstanding that the UfM has convened three ministerial meetings on trade and one on transport since 2017.
 In addition, a first conference of Euro-Mediterranean ministers of culture was also convened on 16-17 June 2022 upon the initiative of the Italian government. This ministerial meeting was organized outside the UfM system given that the UfM does not hold any competence in the field.
 See the statement of the UfM northern co-president, HRVP Josep Borrell, in a live intervention at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB) on 25 November 2022 expressing his “full disappointment” regarding the format of the UfM ministerial meetings on foreign affairs: www.cidob.org/ca/activitats/linies_geografiques/europa/crisis_globals_respostes_europees_una_conversa_amb_josep_borrell/(language)/cat-ES (time 1:49:40)
 Notably DG CLIMA, DG EMPL, DG ENV, DG ECHO, DG GROW, DG MOVE, DG RTD and DG TRADE
A reference in the New Agenda for the Mediterranean (European Commission, 2021, p. 21) on the possibility to convene “regular meetings at the level of foreign and sectoral ministers as well as senior officials, and meetings of Heads of State and Government when necessary” could compete fiercely with analogous formats of the UfM.
Header photo: 7th Regional Forum of the Union for the Mediterranean held in Barcelona (24 November 2022). Photo: Union for the Mediterranean.