Egypt, Europe, and the Seeds of a Crisis

When Hosni Mubarak fell from power, the European Union promised to trade its cozy links with Arab dictators for a new partnership for democracy. To support the process of political reform, the Union would offer increased money, access to markets and greater mobility. Half a year on from those heady days, Egyptians have been protesting outside the European Commission headquarters in Cairo and the much-discussed partnership is in danger of being driven off track.

The cause is neither a coup nor a counterrevolution, but an avoidable dispute over a humble plant: Egyptian fenugreek, the seeds of which are often used in spices and salads. This simmering argument is in danger of being driven forward by a toxic mix of European technocracy and Egyptian nationalism.

The background: On July 5th, the European Food Safety Authority banned the importation of Egyptian fenugreek seeds used to produce sprouts. The authorities had identified a link between two recent E. coli outbreaks in Northern Germany and Bordeaux and the imported Egyptian seeds. After investigating several false leads, in particular Spanish cucumbers, the food inspectors were relieved to find a single source that linked all the different outbreaks, and even happier that it was outside of the European Union.

Faced with a health threat that killed at least 48 people, caused renal problems in at least 800 others and affected more than 4,000 E.U. citizens — Union officials put caution first and banned imports into Europe not only of fenugreek seeds but also other beans. The ban is to be imposed until Oct. 31.

The only problem with this decision is that it didn’t take into account either the E.U.’s foreign policy priorities or the likely reactions of a post-revolutionary Egypt.

Under the Lisbon Treaty, the E.U. is meant to be in a better position to coordinate its economic and foreign policy priorities. Although the Union’s foreign minister, Catherine Ashton, has rightly made supporting the Arab Spring a top priority, another part of the E.U. machine has introduced the ban that, if upheld for a full year, could block as much as 10 percent of Egypt’s agricultural exports at a time when the country’s economy is reeling from a plunge in tourism and investment.

To the protesters in Cairo, the E.U. is cutting the revolution off at the knees. “I won’t even shake the hand of the official who decided this,” a prominent Egyptian businessman told us.

The E.U. is not alone in banning the imports (Switzerland and Russia put a similar ban in place) but the measure, which affects just €5.6 million of exports (if the ban ends on Oct. 31), is threatening to obscure the E.U. offer of billions of euros in assistance.

Less than a week after the European Commission’s president, José Manuel Barosso, met with Tahrir Square activists in Cairo and pledged to support their aspirations, some of the same activists have helped organize the protests.

What has made matters worse is the unthinking nationalism of a post-revolutionary Egyptian government that is keen to assert Egyptian independence.

The European Commission is looking for a way to reassure E.U. food safety inspectors that Egyptian exports are safe and that the ban can be lifted. The first step would be to send an inspection mission from the Food and Veterinary Office to Egypt. Such an inspection is essential in the reassessment of the current ban.

However, the Egyptian government is so hostile to perceptions of foreign interference that it at first refused to allow the team to enter the country, and then introduced bureaucratic obstacles that the team was unable to meet. The European Commission remains open to sending an inspection team if Egypt allows it to.

And so the E.U.’s offer of partnership is collapsing under the weight of European technocracy and Egyptian recalcitrance. If the E.U. wants to salvage its reputation and help Egyptian farmers it needs to act quickly.

First, the E.U. should immediately announce the establishment of a fund to help affected farmers. The commission will be wary of setting a precedent for compensation schemes, but there is nothing to stop it setting up a €5 million fund that could help farmers clean up their production techniques. The amount is comparatively small and worth paying if the E.U.’s larger offer of assistance — and relationship with post-revolutionary Egypt — is not going to be undermined. Second, the European Commission should try to narrow the scope of the ban so that it covers only the affected seeds rather than exports of green beans and other products that have not been shown to cause E. coli.

In the longer run, the E.U. will need to look at more innovative ways of supporting European investment in Egypt. One way could be to boost exports to Egypt and Tunisia by insuring European companies against political risk. The E.U. should also learn another lesson from the debacle and create an early warning system to ensure that its diplomatic machine is in a better position to prevent technical decisions about trade and food safety from undermining its broader foreign policy priorities.

European governments want to help post-revolutionary Egypt undergo a successful transition to democracy, and many people in Cairo — starting with the Tahrir Square activists — would like the assistance on offer. Arraigned against them, however, is an accidental alliance between pre-Lisbon Treaty European bureaucrats and post-Mubarak Egyptian nationalists, both of whom believe they are acting in the interests of their constituencies.

To ensure that the European Union and Egypt can begin the kind of partnership that many people on both sides of the Mediterranean want, the current crisis must be defused before it becomes unfixable.

By Daniel Korski, who runs the Middle East program of the European Council on Foreign Relations and Mark Leonard, the council’s director.

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