EU ministers face dilemma in Egypt talks

Series Title
Series Details 17/10/96, Volume 2, Number 38
Publication Date 17/10/1996
Content Type

Date: 17/10/1996

By Elizabeth Wise

EGYPTIAN Foreign Minister Amr Moussa will stretch the definition of the Union's 'cooperation councils' when he meets EU foreign ministers later this month.

These normally humdrum meetings are a feature of a 20-year-old trade and cooperation agreement between Egypt and the EU, covering a limited range of exports and EU aid to the North African country's industrial and agricultural infrastructure. They rarely produce any tangible results.

But the two sides are currently trying to update their ties with an association accord, and Union officials suspect that Cairo has asked for this month's cooperation council - which officially has nothing to do with the negotiations - to give a push to the talks.

The proposed association accord could include extensive political dialogue, exchanges in areas from culture to research and, significantly, more trade.

But negotiations hit a snag several months ago, when Egypt demanded more concessions for its agricultural products than EU ministers were prepared to give.

Cairo is not only seeking wider avenues for its farm exports, but is also trying to reduce the traffic in EU industrial exports directed at Egypt in a bid to protect its own manufacturers.

While ministers will not negotiate (and are not even promising to bring up the subject) when they meet Moussa on 28 October in Luxembourg, Union officials say his visit is welcome because it will provide an opportunity for EU ministers to discuss the Middle East peace process with him. “The real reason for this meeting is to have a meeting with Egypt about the Middle East,” said one.

Often when the foreign minister of a country comes to meet his EU counterparts for a cooperation council, the meeting is held after most Union ministers have already left, and thus lacks substance. This time, however, Moussa will have the attention of all the ministers over a lunch lasting several hours.

“Formally it is a cooperation council, but in reality it is a magnificent occasion to have an informal chance to cover all the bases with one of the most important interlocutors of the peace process,” said an EU official.

Although Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Syrian President Hafez al-Assad have both asked that the EU be included in Middle East peace talks, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has not.

“He has not said anything out loud, but it would suit him well,” said a diplomat. “He sees the Union as, if not an ally, a beneficial counterweight to the US.”

Irish Foreign Minister Dick Spring has just returned from the Middle East and is not pushing for another visit soon. But the Commission is still canvassing the idea of sending a troika of EU ministers to the region, and hopes ministers will discuss this with Moussa.

They may also discuss the forthcoming World Economic Forum meeting in Cairo and what role the Union will play there. In addition, External Relations Commissioner Manuel Marín wants to quiz Moussa on whether he likes the work the Union is doing to bring a dozen North African and Middle Eastern nations closer to the

EU in the Euro-Mediterranean programme.

Commission officials praise the role Egypt has played in that forum, which covers a wide range of issues and sectors, as a useful mediator between the participating Arab states and Israel.

But Moussa will certainly want some answers to his trade questions, and will push for discussions on farm produce. Whether these issues are resolved, however, may have little to do with economics.

Diplomats say the Union must make one key calculation: how important is Egypt to the Middle East peace process?

“Some EU member states say Egypt is so politically important that it needs our full political backing,” said one. “We might need to give concessions to Mubarak to get him back into the peace process.”

Mubarak refused to go to the Washington summit earlier this month as a gesture of protest against Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu's uncompromising stand in the dispute over the tunnel entrance which ignited the latest conflict.

Having watched EU governments wrangle with previous trading partners over agricultural concessions, some Commission officials doubt that such high-minded political considerations will actually make it to the negotiating table.

“There is no linkage between our political intentions and our actual economic talks,” said one, citing as an example the recent battle with Jordan - also a key ally in the Middle East peace process - over little more than 10,000 tonnes of tomato concentrate.

While foreign ministers may feel it is important to keep an ally happy, agriculture ministers are worried about their angry farming lobbies. Exports from North African or Middle Eastern nations often provoke stiff opposition from the EU's Mediterranean member states, and these talks are no exception, with Egyptian oranges currently at the centre of controversy. Its potatoes and cut flowers are also provoking anger in Germany and the Netherlands.

Egypt's other disadvantage is that it is asking for agricultural concessions after the few that EU member states were willing to make have already been given away to Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan and Israel.

“The distance between Egypt's requests and the member states' positions is enormous,” said a Commission official. “We are having problems finding a proposal palatable to both sides.”

Egypt presented its negotiating position a few weeks ago, and it is now the Union's turn to do the same. Commission officials are hoping the two sides will be able to reach a deal by the end of the year.

But as with Jordan, say officials, there are likely to be “painful and dramatic” sessions before an agreement is finally struck.

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