The European Union’s (EU) response to the dramatic events in Egypt has been rather weak and belated, showing that in a fast-moving environment the Union has difficulty reacting in the way required of a serious global player. Despite a flurry of high-level meetings in Brussels, the EU has thus far taken only light-weight positions and actions.

The limits of Brussels’ foreign policy have been particularly salient. Because of its incapacity to influence events in Egypt, it swiftly shifted the focus of the debate to the EU-Egypt partnership, a more institutionally-oriented and slow-developing approach.

With the review of the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP)  now out, the Union needs to develop a clear idea of how it can deliver and how it can build ownership on the Egyptian side. Given that Cairo has never demonstrated a strong interest in partnership with Brussels, relations with Egypt will be a valuable test case of how the EU can revamp its strategy with its neighbors.

Taking a Month to Act

The EU has never had an important foothold in Egypt. The United States has always been a far more prominent partner for Cairo, both as an aid donor and trade partner. Bilateral relations with Brussels remained frail in the 1990s despite Egypt joining the Barcelona Process, and the country’s Association Agreement only came into force in 2004. The EU expended little time and resources on Egypt in the late 1990s, but began to increase democracy promotion activities around 2003, at a time of controlled openness by the Egyptian regime. In 2007 both parties even agreed on an ENP action plan. So far, however, this plan has yielded mixed results. The latest interim report in April 2010 indicated that cooperation was “encouraging, with a strong commitment to social, economic and sector reforms, and to a lesser extent to political reform.” 

The EU reacted slowly to events in Egypt. It took more time for the EU to freeze the assets of Egyptian leaders—its first concrete action—than for Egyptian demonstrators to force Hosni Mubarak to resign. The EU avoided comment until two days after large scale demonstrations began on January 25, when High Representative Catherine Ashton issued her first official statement, which merely called on Egyptian authorities to respect the rights of citizens to demonstrate. President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy was moderately more outspoken in his position, explicitly requesting that then President Mubarak live up to his “promises of openness.”

The EU’s stance appeared feeble, however, and was severely undermined when German Chancellor Merkel, French President Sarkozy, and British Prime Minister Cameron issued a joint statement on January 29 (the day Omar Suleiman was nominated as Egypt’s vice president), a clear snub to the slow decision-making process that reins in the EU.

The Council discussed the issue two days later. Its conclusions were in synch with those of the Obama administration when they called for “an orderly transition through a broad-based government leading to a genuine process of substantial democratic reform.” In addition, member states indicated that the EU stood ready to help to carry out reform.

On February 4, heads of state and government were convened in council. A day before, five member states had once again circumvented the EU to issue a joint communiqué asking for an immediate transition of power in Egypt. The Council tasked the high representative to convey their message of assistance and their call for an orderly transition, to develop a package of measures to support Egypt and Tunisia in their transition and link them to the ENP and the Union for the Mediterranean, and to adapt EU tools to the changing context.

After Vice President Suleiman announced Mubarak’s resignation on February 11, High Representative Ashton, President Van Rompuy, and President Barroso issued a joint statement welcoming the decision, urging “an orderly and irreversible transition,” calling for the respect of democracy and human rights, and offering EU support while recognizing that the Egyptians should lead the transition.

The European Parliament was characteristically adamant to have the EU take an assertive stance. It held several debates both in Brussels and in plenary sessions in Strasbourg before approving a resolution on February 17. Its approach was twofold. Its primary focus was on Egypt and notably on the promotion of democracy, human rights, and economic and social reforms, as well as the freezing of Egyptian leaders’ assets. The second approach aimed to overhaul the ENP in light of the events unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa.

The first tangible action the EU took came only on March 21, when the member states met in Council and decided to freeze the assets of 19 people, namely former President Mubarak, his immediate family, including his son Gamal, industry magnate and ruling party leader Ahmed Ezz, and former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly.

Baroness Ashton appeared unable to play a prominent diplomatic role even after the member states had given her a mandate. While U.S. officials reportedly negotiated Hosni Mubarak’s departure with Egyptian officials, Ashton was only able to speak to Vice President Suleiman via telephone six days after he was nominated.

Ashton also suffered an unneeded diplomatic setback when, a day before Mubarak stepped down, the Egyptian government publicly stated that she should cancel a planned visit. She eventually managed to visit Egypt at the end of her tour in the region, but it was a rather chaotic endeavor as it remained uncertain until late in her tour that she would actually visit Cairo. In her remarks following her meeting with Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit she said that the EU had made efforts to ensure that the European Investment Bank (EIB) step up its investment in small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and infrastructure or related projects if Egypt were to request such assistance. The parliament had indeed decided to increase the EIB’s ceiling to lend for infrastructure and SMEs by a billion euros until 2013.

Refocusing on the Neighborhood Policy

The EU’s response to the uprising in Egypt has highlighted an interesting dynamic. First, heads of state visibly felt that the EU lacked clout and issued their statements regardless of what was happening in Brussels. More importantly, the EU was relegated to the position of message carrier, with Baroness Ashton acting as little more than a spokesperson for powerful member states. The Union’s diplomacy was thus forced to focus its attention on the neighborhood policy.

Months before the revolts in the Arab world, the EU had decided to review the ENP and the events in the region have accelerated the urgency of this reform.

The overall effect of the ENP in the southern Mediterranean has been at best very marginal, but the unforeseen events have precipitated debates on the EU beefing up its support and seizing the opportunity to play a greater role in the region.

On February 18, six of the EU’s Mediterranean member states, including France, Spain, and Greece (but not Italy), outlined actions the EU should carry out in the Mediterranean. They called for greater emphasis on the South within the ENP, stressing the importance of differentiating among partners. It corresponded to what has been coined as “more for more,” the idea that the more a partner complies with EU requests, the more the EU will reward it, and that there will be more flexibility in the use of EU instruments. They suggested that the financial package for 2011-2013 (the second period of the 2007-2013 package) be revised in the light of events.

They also stressed the need to put greater emphasis on the “project” dimension of the Union for Mediterranean (UfM). It was a clear call from the French, but also an attempt to get the UfM on track after a rocky start. The organization had been completely nonexistent 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 is that the entire project has been dysfunctional so far.

Prior to the ENP Review, the Commission, jointly with the European External Action Service issued a much vaunted communication on March 8 presenting a new kind of partnership, called “A Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity with the Southern Mediterranean.” It is debatable whether it brings new impetus to the approach to the South but it shows where the momentum lies. Conceptually it rewards the idea of differentiation and strict conditionality.

It is founded on three main pillars: democratic institution building, stronger emphasis on people-to-people contact and support of civil society—which had been lacking so far—and economic development that highlights the role of SMEs. The ENP Review fully endorses these principles. It is now time to provide some substance, particularly given that some of the new initiatives, such as the Mobility Partnership, could be attractive for Egypt. It will also be essential to define concretely what kind of conditionality can apply.

Today, the European Union is standing in the starting blocks. It has repeated its willingness to help, but the Egyptian authorities have not articulated their needs yet. The Egyptians have been anxious to take the transition process forward on their own, with as little external assistance as possible. ENP’s 2011-2013 indicative budget for Egypt shows that the EU has agreed to devote €449 million. Whether this assistance is rightly tailored remains to be seen and the EU should not commit to a complete overhaul of its partnership until a new elected government takes office in Cairo.

In the meantime, it should convey its support, offer technical assistance for the upcoming elections and remain open to Egyptian requests, whether they be from officials, business, or civil society organizations. It needs to monitor the transition process, focus on the growing role of civil society, as well as on those areas that will be essential to economic growth, such as SMEs, and establish contacts with incoming high-level officials in the various ministries of interest. It could also be wise for the EU to foster a transatlantic approach in Egypt to offer a more consolidated proposal and a united front to assisting the country in its long and painful democratic transition.

In certain senses this patient posture may be a frustrating one for the EU, yet it could equally represent a welcome opportunity for Brussels to define a clear role and strategy that will encompass the whole region and shape the kind of mutually beneficial—both politically and economically—partnership it could offer to Egypt.