BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union foreign ministers on Wednesday were considering suspending arms shipments to Egypt and curtailing some aid in an attempt to stop the bloodshed and pressure all sides back to the negotiating table.
At the same time, they insisted the EU should aim to maintain its political leverage as a broker in the crisis by continuing to talk to both the army-backed authorities and the Muslim Brotherhood movement of deposed President Mohammed Morsi.
"We, of course, want to send a clear message, especially regarding the use of force," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said. "On the other hand it is also important that we don't close our communication channels — our ways to influence the situation — for good."
It left the 28 ministers looking most closely at the possibility of momentarily cutting arms shipments to Egypt while much of the aid channels might have to be kept open since they immediately impact on the lives of ordinary Egyptians.
"We should not do things against the people of Egypt," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said on arrival at the emergency meeting of foreign ministers. "We mustn't do anything that hurts them or that cuts off support to them."
A suspension of sending arms seemed more likely. "I would assume that no one would export arms in this situation," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said. Britain and some others already have suspended military assistance.
Ministers were looking for options which would preserve the EU's position as a mediator accepted by all sides, and is met with less suspicion than the U.S.
"They must find a compromise between doing too much and not doing enough," said Elena Aoun, professor of international relations at Brussels University. "Doing too much would risk upsetting completely the current power in Egypt, but not doing enough risks corroborating this vision of a Europe that is extremely cynical."
Clashes between Egyptian security forces and supporters of Morsi have killed some 1,000 people since last week.
While the EU lacks the military muscle and long-standing ties that give the U.S. a special position in dealing with Cairo, it is Egypt's biggest trading partner and a major source of aid, loans and tourists for the country. The EU and its member states last year pledged a combined 5 billion euros ($6.7 billion) in loans and aid for Egypt.
Moreover, EU threats to cut some aid may not frighten Egypt's leadership since Saudi Arabia — a long-time critic of the Muslim Brotherhood — has pledged to plug any shortfall. Saudi Arabia and other wealthy Gulf nations, including Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, have so far promised $12 billion in new aid.
The EU's Egypt envoy Bernardino Leon said in an interview published Wednesday that even if the support from Arab nations was necessary for Egypt, "help from the West is equally fundamental because it's not only about quantity but also about quality."
"For Egypt's economy to recover, investors must return, and many of them are from Europe or the U.S., they need signals of confidence," Leon was quoted as telling German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung. "Europe has enormous influence."
Westerwelle added that for Egypt cooperating with the EU, the world's biggest economy, "cannot be made up for by one, two or three Gulf states."
The EU is Egypt's biggest trading partner with a trade volume of about 24 billion euros in 2011 (then $34.5 billion), compared with $8.2 billion with the United States.
The U.S. so far has canceled joint military exercises and delayed the delivery of four F-16 fighter jets in response to the violence, but it is still weighing whether to suspend some of its annual $1.5 billion in aid to Egypt.
Egypt, the most populous nation in the Arab world, is a longtime U.S. ally and has been the bedrock of Washington's Middle East policy, not least because of its peace treaty with Israel. Egypt also controls the Suez Canal, an important trade route, and has so far granted the U.S. fast passage through the canal to deploy carrier groups to the Persian Gulf.
The ultimate goal, stressed Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans, must be to encourage the moderate factions on both sides to achieve a political solution, which would also avoid further destabilizing the region.
Otherwise, he warned, "we might see a return to the '90s, with terrorism on the one hand and a permanent state of emergency on the other hand, which represses freedom and puts people in jail for having dissenting opinions."
Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed reporting.
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