The EU finds itself presented with an opportunity to lead in helping a number of Arab states move toward democracy, but stubborn dictators who cling to power may expose the frailties of the EU's common foreign policy.
Leaders like Libya's Gadhafi present the EU with a dilemma
Criticized for its slow reaction to the wave of protests sweeping North Africa and the Middle East, the European Union hopes to approve a common stance over the next two days as the bloc's foreign ministers meet in Brussels to discuss the uprisings across the Arab world.
Drawing on what a draft copy of the declaration describes as the "European experience of transition" - a reference to Europe's own progress away from authoritarian governments - the EU will offer its "support to civil society, youth and enhanced economic cooperation."
"The push for change has come from within the society," the declaration reads. "The EU can only welcome this and present itself as a reliable partner, willing to accompany this process of democratic change based on a participatory approach, pluralism, open economic governance and respect for human rights."
While it may be a case of "better late than never," the declaration, which will also include an offer of a "new partnership" with Egypt and Tunisia, may only paper over the cracks within the EU, formed by the individual agendas and interests at play between certain member states and the regimes currently under pressure in the restive region.
So far the main reason given for the EU's lukewarm response has been the dilemma it faces balancing its support for democratic change with its fear of contributing to the instability in the region.
However, revelations over the extent of business ties, arms deals and energy reliance between EU member states and governments such as those in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Bahrain have led some analysts to question whether the policies of certain individual member states have been holding the EU back from taking a strong, unified approach.
Individual agendas, policies hampering EU unity
Berlusconi's Italy is Libya's biggest trading partner
"Italy has strong ties with Libya and [Prime Minister Silvio] Berlusconi appears to have a personal bond with [Libyan President] Moammar Gadhafi while Greece also has strong business links," Kristian Ulrichsen, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics and Political Science, told Deutsche Welle.
In addition, France has been exposed as having strong links to the former Tunisian regime, while Britain has deep investment in Libyan oil fields and lucrative arms deals with Bahrain.
"It is quite likely that an internal struggle is underway within the EU between the Scandinavian and Northern European countries horrified at the repression of demonstrators, and southern European Mediterranean countries more anxious to preserve investments and commercial relationships," Ulrichsen added. "This will hamper attempts to formulate an EU-wide response."
The EU has long suffered from a perception of failure in the arena of foreign affairs, with the inability to present a united front the oft-cited reason for its inadequacy. The creation of a new diplomatic service headed by foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was supposed to end the divisions and give the EU's lamentable foreign affairs reputation a boost.
However, as has been the case with many previous major international crises, it was the major powers inside the EU rather than the EU itself which led the calls for restraint when the protests began and issued statements on their own individual positions as the wave of unrest spread.
Ashton facing stern test in Libya
Ashton has already met with Tunisian Premier Ghannouchi
"The EU certainly missed an opportunity when this all began," Daniel Korski, senior policy fellow and Middle East expert at the European Council for Foreign Affairs, told Deutsche Welle. "But it had to consider all the different interests within the bloc, the danger of openly championing democratic change and Ashton's policy of waiting for the leading nations to have their say before forming a 27-state response."
Now, with the EU preparing to issue a comprehensive declaration on its support for democracy and the rule of law across the restive Arab world, Ashton and her diplomatic service will attempt to present a common stance in the bloc's first real foreign policy test since the new infrastructure was put in place.
Kristian Ulrichsen believes that the situation in Libya especially could put the new European External Action Service under a stern early test, and that if it is found wanting at this stage of its development it might find it hard to establish its credibility later on.
"The EU is in a very difficult position as Libya is the EU's third-largest supplier of oil and its cooperation is also essential in controlling the flow of illegal migrants to Europe, giving Libya considerable leverage in its dealings with the EU," he said. "If the EU's stance is strong, the regime could threaten to disrupt oil supplies to the EU or use the threat of unleashing waves of migration as a tool of leverage."
Daniel Korski agrees but believes these possible consequences are no reason to ignore the state crackdowns taking place in Libyan cities. "While the situation in Libya is obviously a very difficult one for the EU, it's easier to take the hits which could come from a breakdown in relations when the regime you're dealing with is using anti-aircraft weapons on its own civilians," he said.
Ulrichsen said that the EU must make it very clear to the Libyan regime that the country's post-2004 re-integration into the international fold will be in jeopardy if it continues its repressive crackdown and refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the protestors' demands.
EU risks falling behind
The EU's Ashton faces internal and external challenges
With the Libyan situation currently too fluid and unstable for any direct EU involvement, Ashton will begin her efforts in Tunisia and Egypt this week, starting with a visit to Cairo where she will urge the Egyptian leadership to start reforms that would pave the way for parliamentary and presidential elections and create an independent judiciary.
"The EU wants credibility in the foreign affairs arena and so the results of what they achieve now will be massively important," Daniel Korski said. "It's been incredibly lucky because it now finds itself with a chance in a situation it feels more comfortable in - long-term planning of democracy with governments which actually want it."
"The big challenge will be in countries like Libya where it's very clear that that the regimes don't want change and the leaders are not going to be vacating their palaces any time soon."
Ulrichsen also believes this is a critical time for the EU in the region with many opportunities arising for it to establish a new set of relations through its immediate and future involvement. However, if the EU fluffs its lines again, the chance to lead in the remaking of the Middle East will be lost and its credibility irrevocably damaged.
"Any fall-out from an EU stance is more likely to come from a watered-down version of a position where it does not offer sufficient support to the pro-democracy protestors," Ulrichsen said. "Were this to happen, it would greatly damage the EU's credibility among reformers and activists."
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Rob Mudge