Egypt mulls the deal it couldn’t refuse
The number of Egyptian guests at the ceremony in Luxembourg on June 25, at which the European-Egyptian partnership agreement was signed, belied the ambivalence with which the pact was negotiated. Over the seven-year period, during which officials shuttled between Brussels and Cairo, there were a good many Egyptians who would have preferred it would just go away. Their attitude could be likened to a child considering the vegetables on his plate. He knows that they are good for him, but he’d prefer not to eat them.
Some 300 Egyptians and 14 European foreign ministers looked on as Ahmed Maher, the Egyptian foreign minister, signed the association agreement on behalf of his government. The European Union was represented by Anna Lindh, the Swedish foreign minister, whose country currently holds the EU presidency. Adding his name to agreement was Chris Patten, the EU external affairs minister also signed.
The European-Egyptian partnership agreement is part of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, which began life at the Barcelona Conference in 1995. Negotiations actually had begun a year earlier, and concluded until June 1999. But it took about 18 months before a draft was initialed on January 26 of this year, and then a full five months before a final version was ready for signing.
Once operational, the partnership agreement will take precedence over Egypt's current agreement with the EU, which was signed in 1977 and added to in 1987. But, before that happens, it has to be ratified by the Egyptian parliament, the European parliament in Strasbourg and the parliaments of all 15 EU member countries.
The European Union had already signed partnership agreements with five southern and eastern Mediterranean countries, including Tunisia, Morocco, Palestine, Jordan and Israel, while negotiations with Algeria, Lebanon and Syria continue. But the Europeans considered Egypt a linchpin and key to its master plan of creating an EU-led economic block that will include all of Europe and the Mediterranean Basin.
"For us it is important that Egypt sign and be part of the [Barcelona] Process. It does not make sense without Egypt," said Michael Webb, head of the Mediterranean unit of the European Commission's Directorate General for External Relations, to Al-Ahram.
The most vociferous opposition to the agreement came from Egyptian manufacturers, who feared that they eventually would crumble under an onslaught of European-made products. Certain of the manufacturers, who import much of their raw material from outside of Egypt and the EU, complained about an uneven playing field.
The Europeans were cognizant of some of these concerns and attempted to sweeten the bitter pill. As a result, whereas the EU will immediately lift all trade barriers to Egyptian industrial exports, Egypt will have a 12-year transitional period to bring its industrial sector to a level at which it compete unassisted against it European competition.
However, when it came to agricultural policy, the Europeans were less forthcoming, albeit they insisted their hands were tied because of the Common Agricultural Policy. The Egyptians had asked for larger quotas and longer seasons for Egyptian exports, and, while the Europeans were prepared to make concessions, they were not prepared to allow and altogether non-protectionist environment.
Still, where Egypt currently has 25 agricultural products that are given preferential treatment by EU countries, the new agreement will raise to 108. In certain cases quotas will be raised by hundreds of percent, and when tariffs kick in, they will be at a preferential rate.
So then, why the atmosphere of discontent? Indeed, speaking at the signing ceremony in Luxembourg, the Egyptian foreign minister described at the agreement as a “win-win” situation for both sides. But if clichés were in order, there would be those who would have described as a “deal Egypt could not afford to refuse.”
Publicly officials in Cairo were saying that the partnership agreement would help reduce Egypt’s deficit with the EU, which last year reached $14 billion. The volume of commerce between Egypt and the EU equals 40 percent of Egypt's total foreign trade.
But in quiet conversation, many of the same officials could be heard voicing concern that, within the framework of the new arrangement, Egypt’s status as the economic powerhouse of the southern and eastern Mediterranean—at least in respect to the Arab world—would be eroded. But with Tunisia, Morocco, Palestine and Jordan already having signed such agreements, and Algeria Libya and Syria moving in a similar direction, Europe’s foothold in the region was being firmly established, whether Egypt liked it or not. ― (MENA Report)
© 2001 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)
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