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Catherine Ashton

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice President of the European Commission

Remarks on Egypt and Tunisia

European Parliament

Brussels, 2 February 2011

Mr President, honourable members

We have all been watching the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt very closely. The people of both countries have voiced legitimate grievances and aspirations, and they expect a proper response, from within their countries but also from partners like the European Union. Their message is clear – their political systems have reached a point of no return, and change must come now.

I take this opportunity to express my admiration for their dignity, courage and peaceful determination.

In Tunisia, the changes that took place are remarkable and have paved the way for a more democratic development of the country. Despite many challenges, we can already see positive developments in Tunisia where efforts have been made to meet the demands of the population. The transitional government has taken some important steps, in particular by freeing political prisoners, allowing freedom of expression as well as prosecuting members of former president Ben Ali’s family for corruption.

Furthermore, three independent Commissions have been set up and taken up work – the Commission for inquiry on corruption and misuse of public funds, for inquiry of abuses during the repression during the latest events as well as the High Commission for Political Reform.

Also, I have taken good note of the most recent government reshuffle that responds to popular demand. The government has received the support of the main opposition parties and the main trade union – the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT). Peace and stability is important to allow Tunisia to put in place democratic and transparent elections and effect vital political, economic and social changes. The European Union is there to support the country and its people in this difficult moment of transition and we have responded immediately. Not in order to impose our views or ideas, but to offer our help and to work together.

I spoke on the phone already last week with the new Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Ounaies, following his appointment, and we met in person earlier today here in Brussels. We have had substantial discussions on the best way for the EU to support the transition and assist the Tunisian people. Today the request of support from the EU in the preparatory phase to the elections and in the observation of future elections. We are about to dispatch an experts' mission to Tunisia to assess and provide legal advice to the transition authorities on the electoral legislation.

As for other forms of assistance, we have increased the allocation for cooperation with civil society (€ 1.2 million for cooperation with NGO). This will be combined with a reorientation of our assistance programmes to help the people of Tunisia more directly. Liberal policies alone cannot bring the needed economic and social welfare and distribution of wealth for all the Tunisian people. With regard to the economic sector, we will review with Tunisia our priorities to take into account the new situation and adapt our assistance better to the social needs.

Today discussions began on concrete proposals and I offered our support in the following key areas:

  • Electoral support;

  • Governance/transition to democracy;

  • Support to the civil society and NGOs;

  • Support to rule of law/judiciary reform;

  • Economic governance and fight against corruption;

  • Economic and social development (including Support to impoverished areas in the Centre and South of Tunisia and possible)

We are also ready to consider, jointly with MS, mobility related measures and increased market access.

Working-level contacts are well underway on all these issues and we will continue this dialogue as I intend to travel to Tunisia shortly [in two weeks].

As for the request of Tunisian authorities to freeze the assets of Mr Ben Ali and of people closely linked to his regime, we have already taken initial steps. We accelerated procedures to allow the Foreign Affairs Council on Monday to adopt the decision on restrictive measures, with a view to imposing an assets freeze on persons under inquiry for embezzlement of State funds in Tunisia. The Tunisian Authorities have communicated to us a list of persons who should be the object of these measures.

Last week, at my request the Managing Director of the European External Action Service for the Middle East and Southern Neighbourhood travelled to Tunisia. He had preliminary discussions with the transition government, the presidents of the three newly established Commissions as well as civil society representatives.

I would like to welcome the initiative of the European Parliament to send a delegation to Tunisia. I believe that it is vital that the Tunisian people perceive the strong support of the EU and in particular the European Parliament at this critical moment of transition towards democracy. We should also strengthen all possible people to people contacts and reach out to civil society, including support to NGOs, professional associations and students exchanges.

We now have an opportunity to strengthen the partnership between Tunisia and the European Union on the basis of an affirmation of democracy and economic and social reform. I hope we can build on the mutual respect and trust among our respective peoples to ensure a stable, democratic and prosperous future for Tunisia. In that context I look forward to the upcoming free and democratic elections and the establishment of the new government. I have agreed with the Tunisian FM to resume Negotiations on the Advanced Status shortly with a view to their conclusion once a newly democratic government is elected.

Mr President,

I would now like to address the situation in Egypt.

Just over one week ago we witnessed the start of an extraordinary movement in Egypt. Anti-government protests, clearly inspired by the events in Tunisia, and organized mainly through social media and word of mouth, have taken the world by surprise.

The great strength of this popular uprising is that it is happening across Egypt. Hundreds of thousands of people, young and old, men and women are taking to the streets, demanding their legitimate political and socio-economic rights. The protests have spread from Cairo to other cities such as Alexandria and Suez and further across Egypt. The crowds continued to grow in size and diversity, with protestors united in their demands for regime change and respect of fundamental human rights.

The initially relatively peaceful protests became increasingly violent with the police frequently firing teargas, rubber bullets and using water cannons. Live ammunition might also have been used.

I deplore the considerable loss of life during the demonstrations and my thoughts go out to those who have lost loved ones. The large number of injured and arrested is also a cause for great concern and all parties have to show restraint and to stop the violence. The Foreign Affairs Council made this clear in its conclusions of Monday, and also called on the Egyptian authorities to immediately release all peaceful demonstrators that have been detained. Freedom of expression and freedom of assembly are fundamental human rights for everybody that the state has the duty to protect. The imposed restrictions on media, including the internet, are unacceptable and I urge the Egyptian authorities to restore all communication networks without delay.

Through nationwide demonstrations the Egyptian people are expressing their wish to see change. Hundreds of thousands gathered across the country yesterday in the biggest rally since protests began last week. It is of utmost importance that these voices are listened to, now, and be addressed through urgent, concrete and decisive measures. Time has come for an orderly transition and a peaceful and far-reaching transformation.

Authorities must seek serious and open dialogue with all political forces. Civil society must play a crucial role in this dialogue.

The Egyptian authorities have to move forward quickly through a broad-based government leading to a genuine process of substantial democratic reform that paves the way for free and fair elections.

The European Union will offer its full support to an Egypt that strives for transformation to be more democratic and more pluralist. We have a shared interest in peace and prosperity in the Mediterranean and Middle East region.

What we must do now is to adapt and reinforce the means at our disposal in support of the necessary political, economic and social reforms. Our cooperation already has democracy, human rights and the rule of law as a constituent element and we must now refocus and strengthen this work.

Honorable members,

For me, politics is about changing things; to help people shape their own lives.

Across the Arab world we are seeing lots of potentially positive change, driven by the demands of citizens.

As the European Union, our offer to the region and its people is solidarity and support to put reforms in place. EU is a union of democracies – we have a democratic calling. So we will back this process of change, with patience, creativity and determination.

Thank you for your attention.

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