European Union foreign ministers roundly condemned the bloodshed in Egypt as they went into emergency talks Wednesday to review military and economic assistance to the crisis-wracked country.
“We must very strongly condemn the violence. It is very important that Europe speaks up,” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said as he arrived for talks that were hastily called in Europe’s summer break after the deaths of nearly 1,000 people in a week of unrelenting violence.
“We need to send a common, strong and clear signal for an end of the violence,” said his German counterpart Guido Westerwelle. “Europe’s influence is no doubt limited, but even this limited influence must be used.”
Dubbing the levels of violence “extremely worrying”, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who remains in close touch with Egyptian players across the spectrum, said the ministers would discuss how best to promote a political solution as a way out of the crisis.
Ashton, who twice travelled to Egypt to help facilitate a compromise and who last month was the first foreign official to meet ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in his secret detention centre, said on the eve of the talks that she was ready to return “if they wish me to come back”.
Among the options mulled by the ministers will be withholding part of the EU’s massive aid package, or conditioning its future to progress towards political compromise and a return to civilian rule.
One likely point of agreement between the 28 EU nations appears to be to freeze military assistance and stop the export of arms or goods used for repression pending a return to calm in the Arab world’s most populous nation.
Britain, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands have all adopted such measures and Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said that “delivering arms this week, next week, in the short-term, would not be right”.
But there appeared to be little support for a cut in EU economic assistance or for trade sanctions as the ministers went into the talks, with Italy’s Emma Bonino calling the idea “counter-productive”.
“We must keep faith with the majority of the people of Egypt who want a stable, democratic and prosperous country for themselves and that means we mustn’t do anything that hurts them or that cuts off support to them,” added British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
Hours before the EU talks, Saudi Arabia urged global powers not to take measures that could “hamper the efforts of Egypt’s government to stabilise” the country.
Saudi Arabia earlier this week had thumbed its nose at the threat of sanctions against Egypt, pledging that Arab and Islamic countries would step in if Western nations pulled the plug.
As Washington too reviewed its assistance, Egypt’s interim prime minister Hazem al-Beblawi said the country could live without US aid.
Senior EU diplomats in private warn against cutting aid that for the most part is channelled to grassroots groups working to reduce poverty or improve rights.
Total aid at stake amounts to 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 800 million euros from the EU with the rest from European banks EIB and EBRD.
But because EU aid was made contingent on political and judicial reforms after the January 2011 uprising that overthrew Hosni Mubarak, only a paltry 16 million euros have been paid out this year.
Military assistance amounts only to 140 million euros a year, well below US defence aid.
“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,” said a French diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity.
“We can’t act as if nothing has happened, but at the same time we need to be careful not to be counter-productive.”