CAIRO: The pace of the progress on the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership will increase during the second half of this year as Finland assumes the European Union presidency next week.
Hannu Halinen is Finland s ambassador to Egypt and expects the initiative to enter an active phase with several ministerial meetings due to take place in the coming months. The most substantial of these will be a gathering of foreign ministers in November and the other meetings will cover a number of topics including industry, gender equality, environment and migration.
Halinen also reiterated the expectation of other European diplomats that the Action Plan for the EU Neighborhood Policy with Egypt will be signed within weeks.
The [European] Commission will continue to discuss this with the Egyptian authorities with a view of reaching an early solution, says Halinen. There is the question of formulations, although on a political level it was clarified by both sides that we have more-or-less the same view of what we want to have.
The policy offers Egypt closer economic cooperation in return for commitments of political and economic reform and is described by Klaus Ebermann, the EU ambassador to Egypt, as everything but membership in the union.
Halinen, who accompanied Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit to Helsinki subsequent to his visit to Luxemburg earlier this month when he was expected to conclude the Action Plan, adds that the outstanding issues relating to the Action Plan s wording on weapons of mass destruction and human rights are technical.
The negotiations on the Neighborhood Policy have not been conducted for a long time, says Halinen. They started six months ago … and it s quite a wide variety of issues which we were able to solve …
In general, while there is a diverging opinion between the two sides on the pace of political reform, Halinen believes that both sides agree on the content of the government s reform agenda.
We both agree on the need for political reform, says Halinen. It s in the government s program; it was in the election campaign by the president last year. What is perhaps a differing view is the timeline or the schedule of how to achieve these reforms.
The EU views the independence of the judiciary and a strengthened role of parliament as critical aspects of political reform, according to Halinen, and will follow very closely the implementation of the promises made by President Hosni Mubarak during his election campaign last year.
On the bilateral front, Egypt imported some 220 million euros from Finland last year, an increase of 36 percent from 2004. Some 50,000 Finnish tourists also visit Egypt every year.
Although paper and wood have historically formed the majority of imports from Finland, Halinen says that electronic equipment and communications and information technology services made up nearly half of imports.
Nokia is the biggest brand, but … Egypt is really a fast growing market [for IT], says Halinen. Penetration is still relatively low so the potential is big.
Egyptian exports to Finland, however, remain relatively modest due to logistical problems.
What is needed more is to find imports from Egypt, because this is really lagging behind, says Halinen. You have the logistical problems, because Finland is quite far away to have fresh products like vegetables and fruits … And then we have the common agricultural policy in Europe [in which] we have our own preferential treatment.
In order to encourage business ties, the Finnish and Egyptian governments are in the process of negotiating a memorandum of understanding that will provide credit on favorable terms to Finnish and Egyptian companies.
We are in the last leg of negotiating this memorandum of understanding with the Ministry of International Cooperation, says Halinen. There are already a number of companies in Finland that are interested in using this credit to do business in Egypt.
The memorandum represents a shift in the basis of Finland s foreign policy toward Egypt from one of developmental assistant to one of economic cooperation.
We had projects here in various fields in governance, in environmental, in industry, says Halinen. But we are a small country; our resources are limited. So in that sense the impact was not as good as it could have been. So now we are trying to find a better impact and a more sustainable basis for cooperation.
In addition to IT services, Halinen cites waste management, furniture and textiles as key fields for economic cooperation.
Egyptian furniture manufacturers already purchase wood from Finnish producers and there is potential for collaboration on design.
We are exporting raw wood here [and] Damietta is one of the big centers for the furniture industry in Egypt, says Halinen. We want to see how to cooperate better, because there is also the market for furniture in Europe … There is an interest from the Egyptian side particularly to cooperate with Finland on designing.
There may also be opportunities for Finnish garment makers to outsource their production to Egypt.
We have in Finland major international textile companies using a lot of cotton, but as far as I know there s no Egyptian cotton used in Finland and Egyptian cotton is the best in the world, says Halinen. Perhaps these Finnish companies could come here and outsource some of their production to Egypt using Egyptian cotton.