Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Better the devil you know

Both Europe and the United States have been put in an awkward position this month by the unfolding political revolt in Egypt. On one hand, they want to be consistent in encouraging democratic values and they don't want to be seen to be propping up dictatorships. On the other hand, they are terrified of the instability that could be set off by a political meltdown in the Middle East's most populous country. This is not helped by the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood is the second most powerful political force in Egypt after the regime of president-for-life Hosni Mubarak.

As the saying goes, better the devil you know than the devil you don't. Thus, the statements coming out of Brussels and Washington this week have been tepid and non-committal, stressing the need for stability over any ideological talk of overthrowing tyrants. The west is no great fan of Mubarak, but his semi-dictatorial rule has kept Egypt's strong Islamist movement in check and kept the country at peace with Israel. If he goes, there's no telling who might replace him.

The EU has come under particular criticism, as political violence has unfolded around the Mediterranean, for its slow reaction to events in its own backyard. This has been a particular embarrassment for the EU because its new diplomatic arm, the EEAS, was supposed to make Europe more decisive and reactive to foreign policy issues. And yet as one riot after the other has unfolded across the Mediterranean over the past weeks, the EU has been very restrained in its reaction.

When the violence in Tunisia first erupted the EU said barely anything until after that country's dictator-president fled and it was clear his regime had fallen. This was in sharp contrast to the reaction of the US State Department which seemed to hit the ground running right as soon as the violence started, coming down on the side of the protestors. Of course, the US was more willing to encourage a change of government in Tunisia because there isn't a strong Islamist movement there like in Egypt. In contrast, the EU's approach to Tunisia appeared overcautious and hesitant, despite the fact that only 166km of sea separates Tunis from the EU border.

Then later in January political violence erupted in Albania, which is a prospective EU candidate country. Three people were shot dead when anti-government demonstrators clashed with police. But yet again Brussels remained cautious, urging restraint on both sides. Their hesitation may have been motivated by the fact that the demonstration had been organised by the rival political party to the government. The conflict was largely between different political factions in the country rather than between the people and the government. Naturally, the EU doesn't want to get involved in domestic political disputes. But yet again the US came out with strong condemnation of the crackdown on protests while the EU remained relatively silent.

In the case of Egypt, the US has joined the EU in its silence. This is probably due to the fact that the US has just as much strategic interest in Egypt's stability as the EU, wheras Albania and Tunisia are much more important to the EU than to the US. America can afford to make grand pronouncements of liberty for countries that are not strategically important for them. But when it happens in Egypt, that's a different kettle of fish.

Is Ashton failing her first test?

The unfolding violence around the Mediterranean will be a crucial test for the new EEAS and its leader, the EU's first foreign relations representative Catherine Ashton. So far, the EEAS appears to be failing in its primary mission to foster unified foreign policy positions of the EU as a whole in a rapid and responsive way.

Just look at the reaction to the Egypt crisis. The leaders of France, Germany and the UK issued their own joint statement on Saturday urging both the protestors and the government to refrain from violence. The fact that this statement had to be issued by the EU's three biggest member states rather than by the EU as a whole is a colossal failure for Ashton, and calls into question how seriously the 'big three' are taking her new role.

EU states have also adopted varied positions on whether to evacuate their citizens. Only Bulgaria and Greece had started evacuating their citizens by Saturday. The rest of the EU states had not, even though the US and Canada were already evacuating their citizens.

Even among the EU institutions themselves there was a hodgepodge of different statements. European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek put out a statement calling for mobile communications and internet to be restored. European Council President Herman Van Rompuy called on Egypt to free political prisoners. And Ashton issued her own statement on behalf of the commission merely calling for "restraint" and saying EU foreign ministers would meet to discuss the situation this Monday. With all of these different statements, which one was the "official" EU reaction, one that could be measured up with the US State department's response. This was not clear.

The result of Monday's meeting of foreign ministers was a call for an "orderly transition" to a broad-based government in Egypt, in preparation for "fair and free elections" this year. This position almost completely mirrors the position the United States had issued days before, calling for a government 'transition' but stopping short of calling for Mubarak to step down. It gave the appearance that Europe was simply following America's lead in forming its reaction to the Egypt crisis, something they were pretty adept at doing long before the formation of the EEAS. If Europe is going to continue taking its foreign policy cues from the United States during incidents like this, some may ask, what was the point of setting up the EEAS?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have not been impressed with Ashton or the EEAS so far. Europe is still just following America's lead, nothing has changed. It's dissapointing