At the beginning of the week, Cairo newspapers reported that the that the Egyptian government has decided to delay the signing of the association agreement with the European Union, which was expected to take place in Brussels on May 14. According to the reports, the agreement will now be signed during the final week of June.
But in a special report, Al-Ahram casts doubt as whether the association agreement will be signed any time in the near future. “If Egypt misses the May 14 deadline, it is unlikely that the Europeans will be able to schedule another signing date until later this year. Indeed, as they have not been given any clear reason for Cairo's ambivalence, they are unlikely to offer another date—putting the ball in Egypt's court,” the newspaper wrote.
Officially, the Egyptians are evidently hopeful about holding out for a more attractive deal, and reportedly they are still demanding better access to EU markets for Egyptian oranges, strawberries, potatoes and beans. However, European sources have suggested that renegotiation of any parts of the agreement—which was initialed in January—was unlikely. For their part, they would have liked better access into Egypt for cheese and animal feed—both being products whose sales have been severely hampered by the recent BSE and foot and mouth health crises.
For Amr Moussa, the Egyptian foreign minister, the cancellation of the May 14 ceremony, at which he was scheduled represent his government, would be a real disappointment. Were it to go have gone ahead, it would have been a final and triumphant act in his long and distinguished term as Egyptian foreign minister. The veteran government officer, who has long been a strong supporter of the EU association agreement, will be leaving his ministerial job later this month to take up the position of secretary general of the Arab League.
The Europeans are somewhat nonplussed over the Egyptians’ reluctance to sign the accord, inasmuch as it not only would provide Egypt better access to EU markets, but also an injection of financial aid to modernize Egyptian industry in return for the gradual opening of Egypt's market to EU goods. Effectively, Egypt would get a share of a five-billion euro economic development package that is being allocated to less developed Mediterranean countries.
In the opinion of Al-Ahram, the foot-dragging by the Egyptians could do more damage than they bargained for. European sources told the newspaper that they are very disappointed that Cairo has not responded with more enthusiasm to the EU proposal to sign the agreement on the proposed date. Egypt had agreed in principle to the pact, they said, and there is no reason to further delay the ceremony. "We think it is a matter of political will: Egypt either wants it or does not want it," one EU source told Al-Ahram.
The dispute within the Egyptian government about the wisdom of signing the association agreement has gone for years, with the ministries of foreign affairs, telecommunication and information technology, international cooperation and public business sector being supporters, and the ministries of industry and economy being opposed. But the issue was believed to have been resolved in January, when President Husni Mubarak approved the initialing of a draft agreement that had been concluded several weeks earlier.
However, according to Al-Ahram, a heated debate during a cabinet meeting last week indicated the degree to which the government is still split about the association agreement. Reportedly, Industry Minister Mustafa Al-Rifa'i threatened to go before parliament and express his opposition to the agreement.
Earlier, Economy Minister Yussuf Butrus-Ghali handed a report to Prime Minister Atif Ubaid suggesting that the signing ceremony be delayed. The prime minister apparently was prepared to go along with that proposal, because the government has yet to complete preparing the overall plan for Egypt's modernization, requested by Mubarak last year.
The EU has already signed association agreements with Morocco, the Palestinian Authority and Israel, and agreements with Jordan, Syria and Tunisia are pending. The European Union is Egypt's main trading partner, accounting for more than 22 percent of the country total foreign trade volume. — (Albawaba-MEBG)
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