The EU and Egypt: an interview with Ambassador Berger

Summary:  On 20 May 2021 Arab Digest interviewed EU Ambassador and Head of Delegation Christian Berger about relations with Egypt and issues that included arms sales and human rights

Before coming to Egypt, Christian Berger served as Ambassador and Head of the EU Delegation to Turkey from 2016 to 2020, and non-resident Ambassador to Turkmenistan. From 2011 to 2016, he was the Director/Deputy Managing Director for the Middle East and North Africa at the European External Action Service in Brussels, and from 2008 to 2011 EU Representative/Head of Delegation in Jerusalem.

From 2006 to 2008, he was Head of the European Commission Crisis Response and Peace-building Unit, after serving from 2005 to 2006 as the EU-Representative to the Quartet Special Envoy, James Wolfensohn, working mainly on the Rafah Agreement (Egypt-Gaza border crossing).

Please summarize the state of the current EU role in the Egyptian vaccine programme.

In May last year we organized a pledging conference with other G20 members to bring together donors. The outcome was about 16 billion euros going into research to find a vaccine. The EU then contracted five or six big international pharmaceutical companies to prepare their facilities to produce that vaccine. Step three was to make sure that once this vaccine was being produced it could then be rolled out not only in the EU, but also to our partner countries and countries in the southern and eastern neighbourhood, including Egypt.

With the EU member states, we are the biggest donors to COVAX. We also provided budget support to the Ministry of Health, about 89 million euros comes from the EU, plus there are a number of targeted projects with the Ministry of Social Solidarity, the National Council of Women, UNDP, UNFPA and UN Women to limit the impact of the pandemic.

EU countries are selling Egypt so many weapons, submarines from Germany, Rafales from France, record breaking imports from Italy. Does the Middle East really need all these weapons?

Every country has to decide on its own what it needs for its defence and security.  Arms purchases is an issue of bilateral cooperation between the individual EU member states and any third country and is regulated by national arms export legislation.

But Egypt is a poor country and it doesn’t have enough money for this. Shouldn’t it be spending this money on health and education?

Egypt has done a lot of work in recent years by improving the socio-economic status of a large part of the population, with a strong focus in the rural population.  This is in line with the Sustainable Development Goals and Egypt’s own National Development Strategy.  In the Egypt-EU Partnership Priorities we have agreed to support these goals, that includes health and education.  Together with the World Food Program we were running a big project that ended just a couple of years ago, to enhance the living conditions in the rural parts of the country, with an emphasis on health and education.  The work that was started with this EU- funded continues now with different donors, which means sustainability is there and people still benefit from it.

Ambassador Christian Berger on a visit to Luxor and Qena in Upper Egypt where he met smallholder farmers who benefit from a project implemented by the World Food Programme with funding from the Netherlands, 25 May 2021 [photo credit @EUinEgypt]
Do you think that the EU has got the balance right with regards to engagement versus human rights?

Our interest with Egypt is very straightforward. We see Egypt as an important strategic partner, as a key partner in the Middle East. Just look at the map. You have difficult situations for example in Libya, in Gaza. You have tension in the eastern Mediterranean. Further afield you have the Horn of Africa and all those issues with Ethiopia at the moment. So Egypt is certainly not in a comfortable neighbourhood.

At the same time, we obviously have a strong interest in upholding our own values in foreign policy. So we have a regular dialogue on human rights, and the EU-Egypt association agreement with Egypt says our relationship shall be based, as an essential element of this agreement, on respect of democratic principles and fundamental human rights.

But is this enough? After all, Egypt has been credibly accused by Human Rights Watch and others of war crimes in Sinai and crimes against humanity.

I refer you to the resolution for European Parliament from last December. I think it was quite a strong statement. The High Representative was here in September and in the press conference afterwards with the Foreign Minister he clearly stated that he is raising human rights issues.

Human rights organizations say Egypt has 60,000 or more political prisoners. Egyptian prisons are well known to be Jihad factories…. Don’t you think we should be doing something about this now?

Work is being done on deradicalisation in prisons.  We have had discussions about it in Europe when ISIS started its terror campaign in 2011,12,13, and we saw the danger of radicalisation in prisons but also through other means like the internet.   If you want to improve the security situation then you need to address this, there is international cooperation but ultimately it’s up to the country and cannot be done overnight.  On the situation in the prisons, the EU Special Representative on Human Rights and the European Parliament have been raising these issues.

But we’ve seen with the EIPR arrests and Giulio Regeni the Egyptian authorities appear to walk all over the EU when it comes to human rights.

I can assure you that human rights issues are being raised and are being discussed bilaterally and in international fora, like the UN. Human rights issues are part of our dialogue in the annual meetings of the Association Committee and the human rights dialogue.  Our individual member states are raising these as well in their bilateral meetings with the country.

You were the EU representative with the Quartet Special Envoy on the Israeli Palestinian question previously and you’re on the record as a public supporter of the two state solution. Do you still believe that’s feasible?

It is our policy. We think from a political, historical and even a logical point of view if you want to end this conflict you need to implement a two state solution, meaning side by side with the existing state of Israel you need a state of Palestine. The logical consequence of that is that we have to do everything we can to help the Palestinians to build this other state.

If tomorrow the Palestinians said they wanted one state with equal rights for all would you, the EU, support that?

What we have said is it’s up to the two parties to negotiate the future arrangements. It is for both sides to agree on the formula.

EU Middle East Policy has followed the US Global War on Terror since 2001. Isn’t it high time the EU plotted an independent foreign policy that respected the rights of Arabs and Muslims ?

The US has always been a very close ally on many issues. On the Middle East itself our assessment is we contribute to finding a solution to the Middle East conflict by upholding international legality on the Palestinian rights and the possibility of supporting the creation of a Palestinian state itself. But we also understand, and you can see this in many of the EU statements, that the US is a very important actor in the Middle East, which doesn’t mean that we cannot have our own ideas and pursue them independently, as you will have seen in the past.

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