The unfolding Egypt crisis has eclipsed the agenda of today's (4 February) EU summit, which was expected to focus on energy and innovation. But it has also revealed the limitations of the European Union's High Representative for foreign policy, Catherine Ashton, who has had to take a back seat as the 'Jasmine' revolutionary wave rolls on.
EU heads of state and government gather today in Brussels in the midst of a deteriorating situation in Egypt, with clashes between protesters against the country's President Hosni Mubarak and supporters of the long-serving ruler reminiscent of civil war.
At least ten people were killed during the clashes yesterday, while more than 600 were injured. One million protesters are expected to gather today in Cairo for what they billed as 'Departure Friday' for Mubarak.
However, world audiences remain largely deprived of TV footage, as journalists have consistently been the primary target of Mubarak's supporters.
Statement by the EU's 'big five'
The prime ministers of the UK, Germany, Italy and Spain and the president of France yesterday (3 February) issued a joint statement condemning the violence and the attacks against journalists, and calling for a transition process to start immediately.
"Only a quick and orderly transition to a broad-based government will make it possible to overcome the challenges Egypt is now facing. That transition process must start now," the statement reads.
Separately, High Representative Catherine Ashton issued a statement which according to her spokesperson was "not different" in its essence.
"I call on the Egyptian authorities to embark now on a meaningful and real transition towards genuine democratic reform, paving the way for free and fair elections," Ashton stated.
This is not the first time that Ashton appears to have had difficulty coming out with strong enough reactions. However, developments following the 'Jasmine Revolution' in Tunisia have made this handicap blatantly obvious.
According to the Lisbon Treaty, the High Representative should express the European Union's positions regarding third parties, but the common position is still put together by the member states themselves.
Two days ago, MEPs blamed Ashton for failing to live up to the demands of her job and playing only "second violin" in EU foreign policy.
Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the liberal ALDE group, told her ironically that the only "European" reaction so far had been one by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, who had said that Mubarak must listen to his people and step down.
But Ashton fought back and asked MEPs rhetorically whether they thought they had given her the necessary "tools and resources" to play a more prominent role.
In any case, Ashton will today return to her moderator role and chair the second half of lunch with EU heads of state and government, the topic of which is the situation in Egypt.
A text on Egypt is also expected to be part of the summit's conclusions. The main issue appears to be whether EU leaders will press Mubarak to step down immediately.
The Obama administration is in talks with top Egyptian officials about the possible immediate resignation of President Hosni Mubarak and the formation of an interim government that could prepare the country for free and fair elections later this year, US officials said late on Thursday, quoted by agencies.
A embattled Mubarak made a TV appearance on Tuesday, pledging not to seek re-election in polls due in September and to help bring about constitutional and social reforms during the remainder of his term. He also indicated that he had no intention of leaving the country, as Tunisia's dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali recently did following revolution in Tunis.
Since then, both Washington and EU capitals have clearly indicated that Mubarak's departure from power should be sought much sooner than in September, in the hope that a faster transition may minimise risk factors.
According to analysis by global intelligence company Stratfor, the bottom line — and the hope of the US administration — is that there should be no real regime change in Egypt. The opposition would be satisfied if Mubarak stepped down, but then any new ruling elite — if and when it took office — would be dependent upon the military, the Washington-based website writes.
"The guarantor of state stability is the country's armed forces, which means that the order established by Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1952 will not undergo any major change anytime soon. It is for this reason the United States is not worried about the end of the 'Mubarakian era' and is in fact demanding that the embattled president depart sooner rather than later," Strafor concludes.
One argument in favour of such a forecast could be the fact that no real opposition stands behind the protests, which are being led by civil society.
The leaders of East European EU countries were not invited to sign the letter by the 'big five' states. But apparently no-one felt offended, as the common characteristic of the five signatories appears to be that those leaders can actually speak to Mubarak and put pressure on him.
Eastern European countries and Poland in particular would be pleased if in exchange, they were to get the same leadership with respect to countries in the Eastern Partnership, the EURACTIV network reports.
Unlike the situation during the Iraq war, there are no divisions between 'old' and 'new' Europe, said experts contacted by EURACTIV Germany.
Almut Möller from the think-tank DGAP (German Association of Foreign Politics) said that there was no big contradiction between the strategy of the EU members vis-à-vis Egypt on the one hand and of the USA on the other. She said that the EU's main problem had been that it had not seen the events coming.
In order to regain credibility, the EU should get involved and send a team of observers to the presidential elections. The Union should seek contact with all opposition forces, even Islamist movements, Möller argues.
2011 for the Middle East like 1989 for Central Europe?
As EURACTIV Slovakia reported, development in the southern Mediterranean following Tunisia's revolution appear to many to resemble the 1989 wave of revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe.
Slovak Foreign Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda said that the situation in Egypt looked to him "a bit like the Velvet Revolution," but added that there were more differences than similarities.
His Czech colleague Karel Schwarzenberg, whom he had just met, appeared to indicate that the EU didn't have any real interlocutors among the opposition.
"The EU knows [former IAEA Director Mohamed] ElBaradei and that's about it. The leader of the Muslim Brotherhood said he was released from the prison but no-one has been in touch with him. So it is a rather anonymous movement – who will actually become the leader is yet to be seen. It was not the same in our country before 1989, when the leader Václav Havel was known already for many years," Schwarzenberg said.
"We do not know a person like that in Egypt," he stated.
"I am convinced that in case the democratic regime is established in the country, the European Union should help Egypt considerably. Not only by nice words, but also by real assistance," Schwarzenberg said.