The EU – a player in Egypt?

The EU has agreed to suspend its arms sales to Egypt at an extraordinary Foreign Affairs Council held on August 21, in response to the killing of more than 1,000 opponents of the military-backed government. 

After long talks, the EU Foreign Ministers managed to formulate a common position: they both condemned the bloodshed and suspended exports of any military equipment. “We strongly condemn all acts of violence and we do believe the recent actions of the military have been disproportionate {…] Member states also agreed to suspend export licenses to Egypt of any equipment which might be used for internal repression […]” said EU Foreign Affairs chief Catherine Ashton . 

According to the figures compiled by The Guardian ,  the major arms exporters to Egypt from the EU until now were Italy, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Germany and the UK, in order of value. Česká zbrojovka, the Czech arms producer, has struck a historical deal in May this year and sold 50,000 guns to the Egyptian authorities.

The EU Foreign Ministers have all issued statements that confirm this common position. Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said  that "delivering arms this week, next week, in the short-term, would not be right".

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt wrote on his blog : “We have hardly seen in modern times such an abuse - to this extent and of this character - that we had to witness over the past week. And it goes without saying that it must have consequences. EU's words must mean something after all”.

A limited common position…

The EU Foreign Affairs Council also considered other potential reactions to the situation in Egypt, such as limiting trade and aid. 

Signed in 2004, a trade agreement significantly lowered Egypt’s trade barriers to the EU   which resulted in a sharp increase in EU-Egypt trade (worth €23,8 billion in 2012). EU imports from Egypt involve mainly travel services and transport, while goods imports consist of energy, chemicals, textiles and clothes.  However, EU leaders reckoned that the state of the Egyptian economy is a major obstacle on its path to a stable democracy. The EU's Egypt envoy, Bernardino Leon, said in an interview to the German daily Süeddeutsche Zeitung  “Help from the west is equally fundamental […] For Egypt's economy to recover, investors must return, and many of them are from Europe or the US – they need signals of confidence”.

Ahead of the meeting, the EU leaders had also  discussed the possibility of curbing aid . Dissensions were on the agenda. Denmark has already suspended its bilateral aid to Egypt and the UK its projects in cooperation with the Egyptian security forces. The Austrian Foreign Ministers evoked the option of cutting aid “until democratic conditions are in place again”. Other EU members maintained their bilateral assistance programs, while the EU decided not to continue with its multilateral aid to Egypt   The EU has sent about €450 billion over the last three years, mostly spent on infrastructure and civil society developments.

… likely to have a limited impact

Despite the agreement reached by EU leaders to stop selling arms to Egypt, the EU is discovering that it might not be the sole player in the Middle-Eastern arena. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates promised the new Egyptian government  loans and technical assistance worth €12 billion. The Saudi Foreign Minister even stated that “The Arab and Muslim states are rich and won’t hesitate to extend a helping hand to Egypt”. Furthermore, Housam Swilam, ex-chief of the Armed Forces Center for Strategic Studies, said the EU's decision is not significant  since Egypt does not import its arms from Europe. According to him, arming the Egyptian military depends on Russia and the United States. "Egypt is developing its own arms, and the international market for arms is open, and "the Gulf countries will buy weapons for Egypt.", he said.

Having emerged as a key international actor after Morsi’s disposal on July 3rd – Catherine Ashton was the only official allowed to visit the former Egyptian President  – the EU is realising that it has to compete with other regional powers, all struggling for winning influence in Egypt.

Should the EU take stricter sanctions in order to reassert its role in the Middle-East, as Galip Dalay from Turkish Political Research  encourages it to do? According to him, the EU has a unique responsibility to condemn Morsi's military ousting and the bloodshed of innocents by curbing trade and aid to Egypt. Or should the EU listen to the wise words of the political scientist Josef Janning   who fears that stopping aid would “weaken the civil society structures in Egypt”?