February 27, 2011
BRUSSELS — Slow to react to uprisings in the Arab world and compromised by ties to aged, autocratic rulers, the European Union is now promising full support for democratic reform in Egypt and Tunisia and says it will draw on its own experience of transition from authoritarian governments in Europe.
Seeking to catch up with events, E.U. foreign ministers will promise a “new partnership” with Egypt and Tunisia, to support democracy and the rule of law, according to draft of a declaration due to be issued Monday. It also calls on the Egyptian leadership to start reforms that would pave the way for parliamentary and presidential elections.
Two days of talks aim to set a new direction after the hesitant reaction to the uprisings from European governments, torn between instinctive support for democratic values and worries that change might destabilize the region.
Europe’s contribution will draw “where appropriate on European experience of transition, including support to civil society, youth and enhanced economic cooperation,” the draft declaration says.
Spain and Portugal shed right-wing dictatorships in the 1970s, while 10 former communist countries are now members of the bloc.
A separate discussion document on Egypt suggests the Union could offer loans, make visas more readily available, help prepare for elections and aid an investigation into police abuses during the uprisings.
“The push for change has come from within the society,” says the paper, circulated to E.U. foreign ministers who arrived here Sunday evening. “The EU can only welcome this and present itself as a reliable partner, willing to accompany this process of democratic change based on a participatory approach, pluralism, open economic governance and respect for human rights.”
That was not always the impression Europe gave as protests swept the Arab world.
Although this month the Union froze the assets of former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his family, the French government has been embarrassed by a succession of revelations about its links to the old regime. It emerged that the French foreign minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, spoke to Mr. Ben Ali while she was on vacation in Tunisia during anti-government protests in December, and flew twice on a jet owned by one of his close friends.
Prime Minister François Fillon has been criticized for enjoying hospitality in Egypt provided by then-President Hosni Mubarak, and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy earlier this month described Mr. Mubarak as “a wise man and a point of reference.”
Last week, Britain said it would review its export licenses to Bahrain when it emerged that it had allowed the sale of 250 tear gas cartridges to the Bahrain Defense Force and National Security Agency.
The uprisings in the Arab world have been the first real test for new E.U. foreign policy arrangements, which were created by the bloc’s Lisbon Treaty and intended to bolster Europe’s role on the global stage, but which remain shaky.
Catherine Ashton, the E.U. foreign policy chief, is due to visit Tunisia and Egypt this week, around two weeks after Foreign Secretary William Hague of Britain toured the region, though he was not able to visit Egypt.
At the start of the crisis the bloc’s big governments, rather than Ms. Ashton on behalf of the E.U., took the lead in issuing statements. She now has the task of ending years of failure in European policy toward the Mediterranean region.
The document on Egypt, written by the E.U.’s new diplomatic service and its executive, the European Commission, stresses the need for an independent judiciary and says that legislation that needs to be reviewed includes “the NGO law, the media law, the law on associations, the law on political parties, the penal code, the criminal procedure code, the law on military tribunals and the state of emergency.”
“All human rights fields will be concerned — freedom of expression/access to information, freedom of association and assembly, fight against torture, the abolition of the death penalty, social-, economic- and cultural rights,” it says.
Ms. Ashton has already said she will ask governments for an additional €1 billion, or nearly $1.4 billion, of European Investment Bank lending to North African countries, including Egypt.