The EU27 response to the events in Egypt has been rather weak and belated. January 25 was a turning point for the success of the demonstrations in Egypt. However, the first official statement that the High Representative Catherine Ashton had did not surface before January 27 and offered little in comparison to the proportion of the demonstrations. She only called for the Egyptian authorities to respect the rights of citizens to demonstrate. She was a bit more forthcoming in a statement the following day. Herman Van Rompuy, the President of the EU Council, was more forthcoming in his position as he explicitly requested then President Mubarak to live up to his promises of openness.
Following a trend that has been unfolding since Catherine Ashton took office, she waited for the approval of the Member states to be more assertive. They met on January 31st. The statement that came out of the meeting asked for: the release of all “peaceful demonstrators,” an end to the violence, and a subtle call for reform – the word “reform” was still not used. It could be deemed surprising, because the Council conclusions were far clearer and followed the same line that the Obama administration had been favoring, that is “an orderly transition through a broad-based government leading to a genuine process of substantial democratic reform.” In addition, the Member states indicated that the EU stood ready to help to carry out reform. Before the European Parliament, Ashton called a few days later for broad transformation and free and fair elections.
On February 2, the European Commission issued its first communiqué. It also called for an orderly transition, free and fair elections, and a respect for democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. It reiterated the EU’s proposal for assistance.
Reportedly, the first time that Ashton talked to the Egyptian government occurred on February 3 when she had a phone conversation with then Vice President Omar Suleiman. She told him to implement an orderly transition and to ensure that law enforcement agencies protect citizens and their right to demonstrate.
On February 4, heads of state and government were convened in Council. Both on Tunisia and Egypt, they tasked Ashton:
- to convey their message to the Tunisian and Egyptian leadership on her upcoming visit, which was to implement an orderly transition as well as to lend full support in this endeavor;
- to develop a package of measures to support those countries in their transition and link them to the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) and the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM);
- to adapt EU tools to the changing context so that the EU can propose adequate projects that would boost cooperation, exchange and investment in the region hoping to increase economic and social development.
After Omar Suleiman announced Mubarak’s resignation, the three highest-ranking members of the EU foreign policy sphere issued a joint statement welcoming the decision, urging “an orderly and irreversible transition,” the respect of democracy and human rights, and offering EU support while recognizing that the Egyptians should lead the transition.
The EU suffered a diplomatic setback when a day before Mubarak stepped down the Egyptian government publicly said that Ashton should cancel her trip. Even after Mubarak had left, it remained difficult to organize it. She eventually managed to go at the end of her MENA trip, but it was a rather chaotic endeavor. She notably met with then Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit and Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa. In her remarks following her meeting with Gheit, she said that the EU had made efforts to ensure that the European Investment Bank (EIB) steps up its investment regarding SMEs, infrastructures or related projects if Egypt were to request such assistance. Her comments as well as others from high-level officials, such as Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy Commissioner Stefan Fule, helped shape the European debate toward adapting the European Neighborhood Policy and the EU offer to the South.
Before going to the G8 meeting, she went back to Egypt where she met several leaders, such as the new PM Essam Sharaf, and the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces Marshall Tantawi.
The first visible action that the EU27 took happened only a few days ago, when the MS met in Council and decided to freeze the assets of 19 people, including Hosni Mubarak, several members of his family, such as his son Gamal, Ahmed Ezz, and Habib el-Hadly.
THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT’S RESPONSE
As usual, the EP was far more adamant to have the EU take an assertive stance. It had several debates both in Brussels and in plenary sessions in Strasbourg before approving a Resolution on February 17th. Its approach was twofold. It was first focusing on Egypt and notably called for the EU to promote democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, as well as economic and social reforms, and to freeze assets of Egyptians leaders. The second approach aimed at revamping the ENP in light of the events unfolding in the MENA. For instance, it proposed that all individual Action Plans be revised as to include clear priorities accompanied with incentives for political reforms. That same day, the EP followed up on Ashton’s call to strengthen financial assistance to the region. The MEPs decided to increase the EIB’s ceiling to lend for infrastructures and SMEs by a billion euros until 2013.
On March 1, the Human Rights sub-Committee held a discussion on the situation in Egypt with Moataz El Fegiery, from the Executive Committee of the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN) and of the Board of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies and with Ayman Nour via videoconference.
The EP also held several discussions on the flow of migrants coming from North Africa. Egypt was very little mentioned in the discussions. In addition, Frontex reported little influx of migrants. When Frontex decided to help Italy in February, Tunisia was the main country of origin reported.
THE ENP REVIEW DEBATE
Long before the revolts in the Arab world, the EU had decided to review its European Neighborhood Policy – that comprises neighbors both in the East and the South. The events in the region seem to have decisively affected the review process. Arguably, the ENP has always been allocating more resources to the South, although looking at budget per capita it is questionable. The events in the region may reinforce the focus on the South, as the prospect for a more fruitful cooperation with Eastern neighbors is limited at the moment. The overall effect of the ENP in the South has been at best very marginal, but the unforeseen events have precipitated the debates on the EU beefing up its support and presence to seize the opportunity to play a greater role in the region.
On February 18, six MS – all boarding the Mediterranean –, including France, Spain, and Greece (but not Italy), authored a non-paper on actions the EU should carry out in the Mediterranean. They called for greater emphasis on the South in the ENP context. The main conceptual aspects were to implement differentiation among the partners, which broadly speaking means “more for more, less for less,” and to allow more flexibility in the use of EU instruments. They suggested that the package for 2011-2013 (the third period of the 2007-2013 package) be revised in the light of the events. They also stressed the need to put greater emphasis on the “project” dimension of the UfM. It was a clear call from the French, but also a way to try to get the UfM on track after a rocky start and an inability to leave the political obstacles aside, notably the Arab-Israeli conflict. The organization has been completely absent in the overall EU response. One hypothesis is that it views itself as an implementer of projects, not as a driver of policy. Another one could be that it has been dysfunctional so far.
The ENP review is still ongoing. It was initially expected on April 20, but has been postponed until mid-May. However, the EC and the EEAS issued a much talked-about (at least in Brussels) joint Communication on March 8. It presented a new kind of partnership for the Mediterranean countries, called “A Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity with the Southern Mediterranean.” As a reminder, the Neighborhood Policy has remained with the premise of the EC, not the EEAS. Conceptually it rewards the idea of differentiation. It is founded on three main pillars: democratic institution building, stronger emphasis on people-to-people contacts and support to the civil society, economic development highlighting the role of the SMEs. It mentioned Egypt, but the authorities had not yet spelled out their request for assistance. The 2011-2013 indicative figure shows that the EU has agreed to devote 449 million euros to Egypt. Based on the Country Strategy Paper for 2007-2013, an EU-Egypt Action Plan was approved in 2007 and the latest interim report has been issued in April 2010. It defined the cooperation “encouraging, with a strong commitment to social, economic and sector reforms, and to a lesser extent to political reform.”