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Europe ups pressure on Mubarak, calling for immediate transition in Egypt

MADRID — The leaders of Europe’s big five – Germany, France, Britain, Italy, and Spain – demanded Thursday that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak begin a democratic transition “immediately” and condemned violence against media as “unacceptable.”

It was the strongest language used by Europe to date, though still insufficient by some standards.

“It’s not a question of gradually increasing pressure on him. He’s the obstacle,” says José Ignacio Torreblanca, senior policy fellow in the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The source of instability is Mubarak. Millions of Europeans came to that conclusion in two hours watching the scenes of violence, but EU leaders haven’t after weeks.”

The statement comes several days after three of those nations – Britain, France, and Germany – issued an initial, less forceful statement saying they “recognize the moderating role President Mubarak has played” and urging “him to show the same moderation in addressing the current situation in Egypt.”

Today’s statement went a step further, underscoring the growing pressure that European leaders are under to react more decisively against violence that has already targeted several European journalists. Yet it also revealed the continued absence of a united response from the entire European Union.

Leaders calls for ‘quick and orderly transition’
“We are watching with utmost concern the deteriorating situation in Egypt,” said today’s statement (read here), signed by Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Nicolas Sarkozy, Prime Minister David Cameron, President Silvio Berlusconi, and Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. “Only a quick and orderly transition to a broad-based Government will make it possible to overcome the challenges Egypt is now facing.”

Ms. Merkel and Mr. Zapatero went further in Madrid during a press conference, stopping just short of asking Mubarak to resign.

“I spoke with the Egyptian president and asked him to start this dialogue. Nobody can think that things will remain the same,” Merkel said through a translator.

Zapatero added: “We want democracy in Egypt, and when that aspiration is demanded with severity by the majority of the population, it becomes urgent. Any further consideration could be interpreted as interfering,” he concluded.

Europe’s backyard
But that fear of interfering is precisely what many in Europe are criticizing.

“We have been interfering for 30 years by supporting someone,” says Mr. Torreblanca of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s Mubarak who made the qualitative change and broke the contract by releasing his dogs that are now attacking European journalists.”

Demonstrations in support of democratic reforms in the Middle East have taken place throughout European capitals. Columnists and editorials are also increasingly asking their government for a stronger stance. Among the dozens of harassed journalists were several European nationals, including a Greek who was stabbed in the leg and at least three Spaniards who were attacked.

The United States and Europe share concern over broader regional instability that the protests in Egypt are triggering and the geopolitical realignment that could follow. But Europe has an additionally direct impact from instability in Northern African countries which supply gas to Europe, including Egypt.

Europe is also home to millions of North African and Middle Eastern immigrants and their descendents.

“What Mexico is to the US when things go bad, the Mediterranean is to Europe,” says Torreblanca. “For the EU the risks are more economic and societal.”

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