CAIRO: Some may accuse it of being an excessive bureaucracy, others may say that its stringent product standards are a barrier to trade, but the European Union s extensive experience with writing rules and creating institutions to support its economic and political ambitions is a fact.
Europe has a good deal of experience with institution-building and reform, EU Ambassador and Head of the European Commission s delegation in Egypt Klaus Ebermann tells The Daily Star Egypt.
Ebermann describes the accession of countries, such as Spain, Portugal and Greece, with completely different political roots from the rest of Europe that needed to be incorporated into the union.
These were military regimes totally different in kind to what we have in the mainstream of Europe, says Ebermann.
More recently, a number of countries that once had centrally-planned economies have also joined the EU.
We have 10 new member states that joined the EU in 2004, says Ebermann, most of which came from state-run economies, three of them even being a part of the Soviet Union, with the entire fabric of institutions, of ways to run the economy, not just in law courts, not just in the judiciary, but also the anti-trust authority, the civil society, the way to run businesses [and] state-owned enterprise. There is a lot of experience and this was a very peaceful change.
Egypt may therefore have something to learn from Europe on both the political and economic fronts.
Trade relations between the EU and Egypt are currently governed by an Association Agreement which eliminated all tariffs and quotas on non-agricultural products in 2004.
Trade volume with Europe has increased by 40 percent since the agreement came into affect. The next level of cooperation is the EU s Neighborhood Policy, for which an Action Plan is currently being negotiated and is expected to be signed during a meeting of the ministerial committee that oversees the Association Agreement on Jun. 13.
The Neighborhood Policy is the next best thing to enlargement, explains Ebermann. It is everything but membership. We want to enlarge what we have achieved in Europe over the last 56 years. That zone of peace, prosperity [and] stability cannot end at the European Union s borders.
The Action Plan will provide a framework to address sensitive issues that have almost been taboo in some of our talks over the years, which are, just as examples, democracy, human rights [and] judicial reform issues.
Once signed, Egypt will have access to some of the same EU programs that are available to member states that involve both monetary and administrative support to government agencies and development projects. Twinning is an example of such support, where European officials are embedded in ministries in other countries to assist in enhancing the institution.
This may seem like an exchange of political reform for economic incentives to some observers, but Ebermann denies that such conditionality exists.
The formula [of] opening up the market against certain undertakings on the political side is too simplistic, says Ebermann. It s not the opening of the market; the market is open … We want Egypt to be successful because only if it is successful will it be able to create jobs. Only then will it be stable in the long-run. And we need peace and stability in our immediate vicinity and neighborhood.
The economic benefit to Egypt is obvious. The EU is one of the largest trading blocs in the world. It also generally has the most stringent standards for product safety and quality. Compliance with EU standards will provide Egypt with access to the European market as well as many other markets.
Ebermann explains that a number of countries adopt European standards or at least [standards that are] compatible with our laboratories and standards …. because they know if they comply with the rules we have, which are known to be much more demanding than many of the American standards, for example, they can sell their goods everywhere in the world. And that has led to a substantive upgrading of their output in terms of quality [and] specifications. [This] makes them very competitive on world markets.
Only one substantial outstanding issue remains to be resolved in the Action Plan that relates to the wording of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. Ebermann declined to discuss the details of this issue but is confident that it will be resolved by Jun. 13.
It is [related to] a nuclear-free zone in the region, says Ebermann. It is linked to Iran. It is linked to Israel. It is linked to the de-facto situation, which we have to acknowledge. So I cannot go into the detail of these talks now; all I can say is, with all our other partners in the region, such as Jordan, such as Lebanon – I m not talking about the Maghreb countries now – we have found ways to address this in a satisfactory way.
Ultimately, Ebermann says that the political and social reforms envisaged by the Action Plan are consistent with the government s own agenda.
There can be no impression that the Europeans are lecturing [or] bullying, says Ebermann. The Europeans are listening to what your government, your president, your political establishment wants to do in this country in terms of political reform as well as economic and social and the rest of it.
The Action Plan is framework to assist the government to implement this agenda.
Now there is a body of rules and in particular also the vast area of implementing rules, says Ebermann. We all know that Egypt is a charming [and] welcoming country, a country that is moving fast now in particular in economic reform … but the proof of the pudding lies in the eating. If you then go out and see the implementation, with bird flu for example, that is a different story. So there are a lot [of areas] where we can cooperate.