Tuesday,21 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1427, (24 - 30 January 2019)
Tuesday,21 May, 2019
Issue 1427, (24 - 30 January 2019)

Ahram Weekly

Why an EU-Arab summit matters

It is without doubt a major world event, but the European Union-Arab League Summit to be held next month remains short of expectations, writes Salah Nasrawi


Preparations are gathering pace for the first European Union-Arab League Summit in Egypt next month amid enormous regional tumult and increasing confusion over the world’s power politics and the vying for leverage in the Middle East.

Arab and EU officials hope that the remarkable summit slated for 24-25 February in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh will be part of a broader push to forge a new European-Arab alliance to address common challenges and strengthen ties.

The agenda of the summit, still being worked out, is expected to focus on key themes of cooperation and partnership between the 50 countries in the two groups and help reduce the conflicts in the region.

Yet, the EU and Arab heads of state and government at the summit will likely be taking stock of its resolutions and forging an alliance to respond to a wide range of multidimensional challenges.

Many worrying topics emanate from the framework of rising geopolitical tensions, including migration, terrorism, regional conflict, the EU’s internal divisions and state fragmentation in the Middle East.

At issue are the goals each side aspires towards for the summit. In statements, EU and Arab officials have outlined their priorities, some of them clearly contradictory.

The EU leaders seem to look to their first summit with their Arab counterparts as part of efforts to showcase Europe’s international influence and its ability to deal with its persistent crisis of migration.

EU officials such as EU High Commissioner for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini and European Council President Donald Tusk have made it clear that the EU wants the summit to tackle mechanisms to counter the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean.

Other EU officials and voices in the European media have also suggested that the two-day summit should focus on fighting terrorism, human trafficking and organised crime, Europe’s other daunting challenges.

One of the controversies that the summit faces is the EU’s proposal for “regional disembarkation platforms” for migrants that some European countries are pushing to set up around the southern Mediterranean coast.

The plan aims to create shelters for migrants and refugees rescued at sea to be hosted in North African Arab countries. This has become particularly critical, and many countries including Egypt have categorically refused to open what they see as concentration camps for refugees on their territories.

Reports have also suggested that EU leaders plan to use the upcoming summit to raise concerns about human-rights violations and restrictions in some Arab countries in line with EU policies.

In one case, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has said that EU leaders “couldn’t go to the EU-Arab League Summit in Sharm El-Sheikh in February and not talk about the [Saudi journalist Jamal] Khashoggi’s murder or raise our concerns about it.”

Varadkar also said that the EU leaders would also raise their concerns about Saudi Arabia’s role in Yemen, where the four-year civil war has left thousands dead and brought the Arab world’s poorest country to the brink of famine.

Unsurprisingly, the Arab side is working on a different agenda for the forthcoming summit, which it wants to help boost political stability and economic development in the Arab countries as well as collective action in key priority areas.

Arab officials have made it clear that the summit is about more than just migration and is part of a broader push to build closer ties between Europe and the Arab countries.

Egypt’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid and Arab League Assistant Secretary-General Hossam Zaki have stated that the EU-Arab Summit will focus on Arab-European cooperation in general and will not be limited to discussing migration.

As for human-rights issues, Arab governments have always been sniffy about policies that espouse human rights and reject their advocacy as either pandering to human-rights groups or interference in their countries’ internal affairs.

Like in similar circumstances before, the primacy of human rights is expected to be watered down in the draft of the final communique of the summit in order to avoid disputes or even the collapse of the meeting. 

One of the key issues that the Arabs are seeking to highlight in the summit’s final resolutions is reiterating European support for the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict and for an independent Palestinian state.

Realising the global power of the EU economy, however, the Arab leaders are also expected to focus primarily on making progress in promoting business with Europe.

The EU is the second-largest economy in the world in nominal terms, and the Arab countries are hoping that they can have a share in the European market across the EU’s 28 member states and 500 million people.

In this context and given their geographical advantages and proximity to Europe, the Arab countries see great potential for investment and economic cooperation and exchange that could include real access to European markets for both goods and labour.

However, while the summit is unprecedented, both Europe and the Arab world realise the enormous challenges that lie ahead for a renewed partnership.

In reality, policy about evolving Arab-EU relations cannot be concentrated around summit meetings. A summit is good for political dialogue, but it is not tantamount to a geopolitical shift, partnership, or even for maintaining closer cooperation.

While the EU and the Arab countries have to face up to their mutual political, economic and security challenges, they need to delve into the deeper strategic challenges that their two regions face.

Having come too late to forge a viable partnership despite their historic bonds and geographical proximity, the bid for forging a Euro-Arab alliance now could be held up by the new geopolitics of the Middle East as the world’s major powers struggle to reshape the region.

Today, a combination of political instability and civil wars in the Middle East, the US retreat and the return of Russia and China’s increasing competition for power have dramatically transformed the geopolitics of the region.

Rising Russian and Chinese power in the Middle East and the unquestionably significant US withdrawal from the region have been combined with a notable decline of Europe’s influence.

In addition to the traditionally competing world powers, there are also other actors that have been inserting themselves into regional decision-making. Iran and Turkey (and not excluding Israel) are increasingly playing a role in reshaping regional dynamics and in many cases seeking to counter each other’s regional ambitions.

Another sign of Europe’s declining influence that will impact its international role is the deepening divisions within the EU and its increasing inability to deal with internal challenges.

This new reality has created a sense that an EU with dwindling influence is less likely to exert its economic and diplomatic leverage across the region beyond engaging in efforts to protect its self-interest.

Many Arab commentators have been vocal in doubting the EU and the Arab nations’ ability to build constructive relations if Europe does not adopt a new process that will launch mutually beneficial cooperation and partnership with the Arab world.

Other commentators make arguments about how the Arabs should be seeking alternatives with the new powers that are springing up and drawing away business and economic interests from the United States and Europe in the Middle East.

But while expectations for the summit remain low, it could nevertheless provide the two sides with an opportunity to wake up to the new reality and challenges in the Middle East and to try to find new concepts and new frameworks for partnership.

It probably needs Europe to stop looking at its southern neighbours through the lens of refugees and migrants and to work out a broader vision for its relationship with the Arab world, one which is based on historic bonds and mutual interests.

On the other hand, the Arab world also needs to be cautious and to find the right balance between the competing powers in its fragile and crisis-prone region. For the Arabs to turn their backs on Europe is not sustainable.

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