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Europe wobbles over Egypt

Gavin Hewitt | 11:41 UK time, Thursday, 3 February 2011

International crises often tell you a lot about power and influence; which countries and which leaders are players and which are not.

Not surprisingly in the case of Egypt, President Obama gets to make the 30 minute phone calls to President Mubarak.

Protesters at an entrance to Tahrir Square in Cairo (3 Feb 2011)

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey increasingly is a man of influence.

Europe's big three - Cameron, Merkel and Sarkozy - command attention. The EU - as an institution - matters less.

That's realpolitik.

For the US this is arguably the greatest foreign policy challenge since the fall of the Shah. At stake is the most pivotal country in the Arab world. At risk is America's standing in the Middle East. Potentially the peace of the region will be determined by the forces that emerge as winners.

Egypt is consuming the attention of both President Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. They are trying to apply the lessons of history. Unlike with the Shah they have distanced themselves much sooner from a 30-year ally.

The United States has put itself on the side of the protesters. The risk is obvious. It is impossible to know the outcome of upheavals - and out of chaos can come what you fear most.

Last Friday afternoon, the British Foreign Secretary William Hague made an early statementurging the Egyptian government to heed "legitimate demands".

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, US President Barack Obama and UK Prime Minister David Cameron

EU foreign policy chief Baroness Catherine Ashton, too, drafted a position on behalf of the EU.

However it was a joint statement by UK Prime Minister David Cameron, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the weekend that essentially laid out Europe's views.

They attempted a delicate balancing act. They praised the Egyptian leader for his "moderating role over the years" but underlined that the Egyptian people had legitimate grievances. Catherine Ashton was kept in the loop but the big three took the stage.

On Sunday, Washington began setting a different tone. Hillary Clinton went on every morning show to insist Egypt must make an "orderly transition" to democracy. Without saying it explicitly, "transition" implied that the United States wanted a closing of the Mubarak era.

"Orderly transition" soon became the mantra of the West's response. Washington, however, was to go further. President Obama said that he found the large demonstration on Tuesday 'inspiring.' The much spoken of transition "must begin now".

Rapidly other Western leaders such as David Cameron yesterday stressed the urgency of reform. "The transition needs to be rapid and credible and needs to start now," he said.Now, within Europe, the response to this crisis has started something of a debate. As always, European officials are acutely sensitive to the EU's standing in the world.

Some resented the fact that Europe's big three got out a joint statement the day before EU foreign ministers met.

Some had hoped that under the Lisbon Treaty - which set up a foreign affairs chief with a diplomatic service - it would all be different: Europe would speak with a stronger, clearer voice. The reality is different. Cameron and Merkel got to speak directly with President Mubarak. Catherine Ashton didn't.

It focuses attention on the precise role of the High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Catherine Ashton's official title. Under the treaty, her role was never to make up policy in reaction to events.

She has to represent the views of 27 states and the line can take time to emerge. But it leaves some of the larger European states still with the louder voices.

And it has led to an outbreak of frustration in Brussels. The leader of the liberal group Guy Verhofstadt demanded that the "EU must urgently formulate a coherent message. It is no good sitting on the fence and waiting to see whether the regime will prevail over the will of the people."

Daniel Cohn-Bendit of the Greens/European Free Alliance said that "once again we are witnessing the violent repression of peaceful democratic protests by an untenable dictatorship and once again the EU is dragging its heels with its response."
El Pais in Spain went further in a leader article entitled "Shame on Europe".
It charged that the "EU has remained silent in the face of long-continued abuses in the North African autocracies. The EU's high representative for foreign policy, Catherine Ashton, has "repeatedly dodged the issue".

And, in a stinging final line that will be bitterly resented in Brussels, the paper said that "while the US appears to have recovered its role as a liberal power, the EU seems well on the way to losing the role it used to play in support of human rights".

All of that indicates just how far the new diplomatic service has to go to bed down and be truly effective. It raises again the question of how Catherine Ashton can insert herself earlier into crises as they emerge.

What Egypt does is to underline again the nature of power.

The United States has the lead role because it fostered and supported the regime and its military.

The EU is wedded to soft power. It could well have a central role in helping supervise elections in Egypt. That should not be under-estimated.

But it may not satisfy those who thought the Lisbon Treaty would deliver a stronger international voice for the EU. What Turkey demonstrates is that you don't need a single voice to be influential. The country has a vibrant economy, a clear message (Mubarak should step aside) and the increasing confidence to assert its views.


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