EU foreign ministers will hold emergency talks Wednesday to forge a response to Egypt’s blistering violence, possibly withholding aid or arms while urging a political solution in the key Arab nation.
“We will respond to the current situation,” the European Union’s special envoy to Egypt, Bernardino Leon, said at the close of hastily called talks between senior diplomats from the bloc’s 28 member states.
“But at the same time we will remain a constructive actor trying to promote a political solution,” he said.
In light of the spiralling bloodshed in Egypt, the diplomats agreed to swiftly convene EU ministerial talks but took no decisions on a range of proposals, from slicing development aid to adopting an arms embargo or coordinating Egypt policy across their 28 states.
“There is no easy solution,” Leon told reporters. “We will have a very open discussion on Wednesday… At this stage it is very difficult to predict what will be the decisions.”
At stake is nearly five billion euros ($6.7 billion) in loans and grants promised by the world’s top aid donor to Egypt for 2012-13. It includes one billion euros from the EU with the rest from European banks EIB and EBRD.
EU aid however was made contingent on political and judicial reforms after the 2011 uprising that overthrew Hosni Mubarak.
Since 2012, little to no direct aid has been approved for the Egyptian government due to a lack of reform.
As ambassadors from the bloc’s Political and Security Committee gathered in the midst of their summer break, Saudi Arabia thumbed its nose by pledging that Arab and Islamic countries will step in to help Egypt if Western nations cut aid.
Leon, who spent weeks in Egypt trying to mediate between the interim government and supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi, said the EU’s foreign service would prepare proposals for action in the next 48 hours but gave no concrete indications on the plans.
EU diplomats told AFP that several countries had suggested cutting back assistance programmes but that there were worries over slicing aid such as that targeted at reducing poverty or improving rights.
As tourism revenue dries up and European firms close Egyptian plants due to the violence, Denmark last week announced it was suspending development projects run directly with the government and with public institutions.
But a French diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity said “should we decide to suspend this or that project we risk penalising Egyptian people above all. We could also review defence or security agreements but even that is complicated.”
“We can’t act as if nothing has happened, but at the same time we need to be careful not to be counter-productive.”
Sweden’s Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said last week: “Our aid consists primarily of support to human rights and women’s organisations. Not so wise to suspend that right now.”
Monday’s talks were called after the death toll from five days of violence in Egypt climbed to almost 800, causing a mounting international outcry and triggering warnings from Brussels that the bloc will “urgently review” ties with the Arab world’s most populous country.
“Recent developments in Egypt, and more particularly the violence of the last days, are extremely worrying,” the presidents of the European Council and European Commission, Herman Van Rompuy and Jose Manuel Barroso, said in a rare joint foreign policy statement.
“It is crucial that violence ends immediately,” they said on the eve of Monday’s meeting.
“The EU will urgently review in the coming days its relations with Egypt.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday suggested a freeze on arms supplies and her Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle expressed “shock” Monday over a “terror attack” in the Sinai border region near Israel in which 25 Egyptian police died.
EU foreign ministers have not met since July 22, when they urged Egypt’s army to stand aside and allow a peaceful transition to civilian rule following the military overthrow of Morsi.
Leon said that while the government “has a special responsibility” for the violence, it was not alone.
“There is violence coming from all sides,” he said. “Violence, all violence, from both sides, has to stop.”