ROTTERDAM // European politicians from across the political spectrum have expressed frustration with what they say is the EU's slow and timid response to the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.
Stung by the remarks, the bloc's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, is visiting Tunisia today and is planning to visit Egypt as soon as possible.
Some of the criticism of the EU's policies echoes widely reported misgivings, domestic and international, about the American response to the crises, seen at times as ambivalent and wavering. But the EU's critics charge that the 27-member bloc has lagged behind even the United States in responding in a region the EU regards as its own backyard.
"It was disappointing to listen to President Obama and Hillary Clinton speak with one voice and on the contrary hear Baroness Ashton come out with lower-key statements," said Loannis Kasoulides, a member of the European parliament and a foreign policy spokesman for the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), the assembly's largest group.
The EU's new foreign policy department, headed by Lady Ashton, rejected the criticism and said it had responded well. Darren Ennis, the deputy spokesman, said: "It's about quality, not about who is the quickest. In the end of the day we'll be there for the long haul." The EU has offered both Tunisia and Egypt assistance for a transition to democracy.
On Friday the EU quickly issued a statement welcoming the decision by the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, to step down, and urging the army to form a broad-based, civilian-led government.
"An orderly and irreversible transition towards democracy and free and fair elections is the shared objective of both the EU and the Egyptian people," the statement said.
Much of the European debate reflects the adage, ascribed to Henry Kissinger, that Europe "has no phone number", meaning that it is made up of many countries with disparate foreign policies.
With regards to the Arab world, a country with a Mediterranean outlook such as France may have policies and perceived interests very different from those of countries such as the UK or Germany. On foreign policy the European countries still find it hard to cede part of their sovereignty.
The unrest in the Arab world has also been seen as a baptism of fire for Europe's new foreign affairs department and diplomatic arm, the European External Action Service (EEAS), headed by Lady Ashton.
The EEAS, fully operational since December, was supposed to solve part of the problem by giving Europe one voice and one address.
Mr Ennis said that Lady Ashton has succeeded in doing just that. "The Tunisian foreign minister, did he first hop on a plane to Washington? No he hopped on a plane to Brussels. He wanted to see her because she represents 27 countries. That is why she is important."
But Franziska Brantner, a member of the European parliament for the left-wing Greens, said Lady Ashton had not been forceful enough. "It is certainly bad timing for the EU to be caught in such an important event," she said.
However, she said, the problem actually lay with the member states. "They are very reluctant to take a clear position on either side. That is the main problem."
She urged the EU to keep up the pressure on the new Egyptian rulers. "It is about what you signal to the people in the street in Egypt, whether you take their concerns seriously. If you issue a sympathetic declaration and do not follow up it sends a bad message."
The EU has treaties with many of the Arab countries on the Mediterranean, called association agreements, that include human rights clauses. Critics say that the EU has ignored its own stipulations and allowed regimes such as the ones in Tunisia and Egypt to ignore such clauses. Israel also has an association agreement with the EU, but ties were strained by its offensive in Gaza of December 2008 and January 2009.
Mr Kasoulides, of the conservative EPP, called the association agreements a great tool but cautioned that the EU cannot impose its standards on others. "We have to be very clear that the best way to respect the populations is to engage in dialogue."
Mr Kasoulides said that he warned Israeli officials that the unrest in the Arab world should spur Israel to renew negotiations with the Palestinians. "I told them that the situation now is not at all the same as before."