Catherine Ashton, the High Representative, has just spoken to the European Parliament in Brussels on Tunisia and Egypt.
On Tunisia, Ashton was able to describe what action is being taken. She will submit a proposal to the Foreign Affairs Council on restrictive measures to freeze the assets of Tunisian figures suspected of embezzling public Tunisian funds. A EU mission to support the legal framework of elections in Tunisia has been sent, and Ashton will visit Tunisia in two weeks. Ashton also pointed out to parliamentarians that the newly appointed Tunisian Minister of Foreign Affairs visited Brussels as his first official visit, and spoke with her.
Regarding Egypt, Ashton had some praise for the demonstrations, saying that "the great strength of this movement is that it is happening across Egypt", and called for peaceful protesters who had been arrested to be released, and the restrictions on online media to be ended. Recently violence has broken out, with at least 500 people injured in the violence according to Euronews (which has taken to showing a continuous stream of fighting on Egyptian streets), and it seems that the clashes are caused by the police and pro-Mubarak demonstrators trying to dislodge the anti-government protestors, with the army standing aside, as if waiting to see which side will be more determined. Ashton called for calm on all sides, and described the EU as willing to help with reform and change in the region, saying, "we are a Union of democracies, we have a democratic calling".
Guy Verhofstadt described the only proper European response to the Egyptian crisis to be the Turkish one, which called for Mubarak to listen to the demands of the people, and demanded that Ashton state that the EU is fully behind the Egyptian people and their demands. I agree that that is the correct, principled, stance that we can take, though I understand that Ashton - indeed, any High Representative - isn't in the position to make strong statements off her own bat. I also have some sympathy for the High Representative: these situations are hard to react to, particularly when you have to co-ordinate 27 different foreign policies. However, there is clearly a popular movement in Egypt, and we should be consistent in our calls for democracy and human rights. Ashton's weakness here is probably her inexperience - I do not know what her personal reaction to the situation is, and I feel that she probably recognises what the circumstances in Egypt mean, but any High Representative has to have a clear vision and strategy, backed up with facts and strong arguments when faced with such a rapidly changing situation. This inexperience probably means that any response she wants to formulate is done relatively slowly, and she is unable to deal with national policy variations well enough to co-ordinate quickly.
There was a lot of talk by MEPs about how the EU should take a stand and acted together, which I agree with, but we need to recognise that we can only have a limited impact on events within other countries undergoing popular protests at the best of times. The Iraq invasion has discredited the idea of intervening, and any action we take has to be principled, but always allowing for the change to be a domestic affair. If we say we shouldn't intervene in other countries to change their regimes, then we have to accept that that means that we have to deal with other countries as we find them, and that international politics are complicated by more competition from powers that aren't that interested in democracy (though obviously our own record on this internationally isn't the cleanest).
Firm, principled political stances, and being able to offer assistance to ensure peaceful and stable reform (it is hard to foster democracy in a revolutionary atmosphere, given that compromise and trust is at the heart of the democratic system), are probably the limit of what we could do, but they are important nonetheless in encouraging a peaceful transfer of power. In the future it may be wise to have a plan in the European External Action Service that mandates the high Representative to deal with similar principled and supportive way, with the speed and coherence that are required.