CAIRO: European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso promised “our experience and our assistance” to the Egyptian people on Thursday, but he assured that the European Union “has no wish to interfere in Egypt’s internal decisions.”
Barroso’s address, titled “Partners in Freedom: the EU response to the Arab Spring,” came as part of his two-day visit to Cairo during which he met with authorities and religious leaders.
In the speech at the Cairo Opera House, the president announced three new programs to support Egypt’s transition to democracy. The EU and the European Investment Bank have also made more than €13 billion available in loans and financial assistance for development in the region over the next three years.
This is part of a €20-billion-package agreed at the G8 in May, he said, noting that Egypt is in “a good position to access these amounts” on its path to democracy.
“We recognize that the revolution is not finished,” he told an audience of diplomats and journalists.
Barroso said that the European Commission will establish a program to support democratization and economic growth, funded by €350 million in grants. The SPRING project — an acronym for Support for Partnership, Reform, and Inclusive Growth—will launch in September and have access to an additional €150 million in the coming year.
The president also said the EU is finalizing plans for the “European Endowment for Democracy” and will support Egyptian participation in educational scholarship programs such as the Erasmus and Marie Curie programs. With an overall 40 percent increase in educational funds, 750 more students will get scholarships.
At a press conference last week in Cairo, Polish Ambassador to Egypt Piotr Puchta said that during Poland’s six-month post at the head of the European Council that began July 1, the new leadership’s Neighborhood Policy will emphasize “assisting in reforms in Southern Neighborhood” and “supporting quality change in EU relations with Southern neighbors.”
In an effort to build Egypt’s staggering economy, Barroso assured greater economic ties between Egypt and the 27-state union — Egypt’s largest trading partner, drawing 33 percent of Egyptian trade. In the long term, he said, he will work on establishing a free trade zone between North Africa and Europe.
He stressed that economic growth and job opportunities are fundamental to a democratic state. “Democracy cannot fulfill its promise if delivered without economic growth and employment,” he said. He also stressed the urgency of stamping out corruption.
Praising the ideals of democracy, Barroso also repeatedly affirmed that the EU will play only a supporting role in Egypt’s future.
“While external assistance may help the flowers of democracy bloom, it is only you who have planted the seeds that can ensure democracy takes root.”
In perhaps an indirect allusion to criticism of the West’s support to the ousted regime, Barroso said, “In the past too many have traded democracy for stability. But recent events have only proved that lasting stability can only be achieved through democratic and accountable governments.”
“The courage you have demonstrated fundamentally changes our relationship.”
He also said the EU will extend support beyond the government and place “a specific emphasis on support to civil society.” Other priorities identified are democratic transformation and institution building, including emphasis on different freedoms, and sustainable and inclusive growth including support to SMEs.
Following questions regarding the pace of EU action in the face of rapid developments across the region, Barroso responded with some candor. “We need to follow a very strict procedure. I’m sorry,” he said. “But I want to reassure you that we remain committed.”
While drawing on Europe’s experiences in democratic transition — including in his native Portugal — Barroso said he recognized that Egypt’s case is different.
“We will treat each transition as unique,” he said. “This comes … out of a genuine concern for achieving results.”
Barroso affirmed the EU’s support for revolutionaries across the region. He said that he met with Libyan rebel leaders on Wednesday in Brussels and affirmed the union’s commitment to its no-fly zone over Libya.
He said the EU will also push for change in Syria, where “President [Bashar] Al-Assad’s promises of reform and dialogue are weak and have yet to be fulfilled.”
Barroso said Egypt will also have an important role to play in “making peace, and securing the aspirations of all people in the region, including the inalienable right of Palestinians to have their own state.”
“It is with good reason that your history gives rise to the expression ‘Misr umm ad-dunnia, or Egypt, mother of the world,” Barroso said, praising the democratic spirit of the revolution.
“Your moral fortitude can continue to defeat the forces of hatred and fear,” he said.
President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso (L) meets with Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf in Cairo on July 14. (AFP Photo/Mohamed Hossam)