EU ministers look to send ‘strong signal’ to Egypt

Top-level meeting in Brussels aims to formulate EU response to army’s violent crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood

Egyptian soldiers stand guard at a checkpoint during a dawn-to-dusk curfew in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013. (photo credit:AP/Maya Alleruzzo)
Egyptian soldiers stand guard at a checkpoint during a dawn-to-dusk curfew in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013. (photo credit:AP/Maya Alleruzzo)

BRUSSELS — European Union foreign ministers are seeking to forge a joint response to the crisis in Egypt to push for an end to the violence and a return to negotiations, with discussions expected on proposals to halt some aid programs and suspend arms shipments.

The 28-nation bloc was likely to tread carefully since radical decisions could mean losing leverage over Egypt’s new military-backed government and weaken the EU’s position as a mediator accepted by all sides.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said the aim was to send “a strong signal to Egypt,” but he also called for “realistic expectations.”

“Our appeal is — with maximum pressure — to contribute to their returning to the negotiating table,” Westerwelle told German broadcaster ZDF before the meeting in Brussels.

Clashes between Egyptian security forces and supporters of deposed President Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood movement have killed some 1,000 people since last week.

“Everything should be revisited,” including political and economic ties, said Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius of Lithuania, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency.

While the EU lacks the military muscle and long-standing ties that give the U.S. a special position in dealing with Cairo, it is Egypt’s biggest trading partner and a major source of aid, loans and tourists for the country. The EU and its member states last year pledged a combined 5 billion euros ($6.7 billion) in loans and aid for Egypt.

Diplomats from several EU countries cautioned that a decision to halt all aid programs was unlikely since many are directed at helping the poor or propping up civil society groups — not directly supporting the government.

Moreover, EU threats to cut some aid may not frighten Egypt’s leadership since Saudi Arabia — a long-time critic of the Muslim Brotherhood — has pledged to plug any shortfall. Saudi Arabia and other wealthy Gulf nations, including Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, have so far promised $12 billion in new aid.

A suspension of EU arms shipments seemed more likely. “I would assume that no one would export arms in this situation,” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said on his way into the meeting.

The EU’s Egypt envoy Bernardino Leon said in an interview published Wednesday that even if the support from Arab nations was necessary for Egypt, “help from the West is equally fundamental because it’s not only about quantity but also about quality.”

“For Egypt’s economy to recover, investors must return, and many of them are from Europe or the U.S., they need signals of confidence,” Leon was quoted as telling German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung. “Europe has enormous influence.”

The EU is Egypt’s biggest trading partner with a trade volume of about 24 billion euros in 2011 (then $34.5 billion), compared with $8.2 billion with the United States.

The US so far has canceled joint military exercises and delayed the delivery of four F-16 fighter jets in response to the violence, but it is still weighing whether to suspend some of its annual $1.5 billion in aid to Egypt.

Egypt, the most populous nation in the Arab world, is a longtime U.S. ally and has been the bedrock of Washington’s Middle East policy, not least because of its peace treaty with Israel. Egypt also controls the Suez Canal, an important trade route, and has so far granted the U.S. fast passage through the canal to deploy carrier groups to the Persian Gulf.

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