The first two-day European Union-Arab League summit saw tens of presidents, kings, prime ministers and ministers gather on 24 February in Sharm El-Sheikh.
The US, Russia, Turkey, Iran and Israel were absent — it was an Arab-EU summit after all, and their absence was part of what the gathering was about.
In his opening remarks President of the European Council Donald Tusk declared that the Arab world should not leave its security prey to outside powers. There was no need to mention names. The catastrophic consequences for the region of foreign interventions are there for everyone to see, from Iraq to Syria.
The host, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, painted a picture of a region beset by wars and terrorism and appealed for greater cooperation in ending the conflicts.
In his opening speech Al-Sisi appealed for a resolution to the decades-old Palestinian-Israeli conflict and of more recent wars in Libya, Yemen and Syria.
“The picture is bleak at present,” said Al-Sisi. He called for greater Arab and EU economic cooperation and warned of “mounting risks and challenges”, including terrorism and migration.
The migration crisis is one reason Europe is keen to forge new alliances with its southern Arab neighbours. As the closest major block to the Arab region Europe has paid a heavy price on the security, political and economic fronts for the turmoil that has ravaged the Arab world for decades.
That 24 of the EU’s 28 heads of government attended the summit was testimony to the importance Europe attaches to its relations across the Mediterranean.
“Europe does not trust the current US administration to do the right thing in the region,” a British source told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“There are major differences between the EU and the Trump administration, including on Syria and Washington’s Middle East Peace plan. Iran is another bone of contention.”
“We took the initiative in 2015 in response to a migration crisis that was a direct result of US policies in the region, especially in Iraq and Syria,” says another British source. “Then we were villainised and ridiculed as naive, hasty and reckless by the Trump administration.
“The clash with the US was a wake-up call. We need to shape an independent foreign policy based on our own values and interests and we think there is an appetite in the region for that.”
But it takes two to tango, and for the EU-Arab summit to become a regular fixture on the diplomatic calendar a great deal must still be done.
“It is important that, in the face of the challenges — extremism, terrorism and migration —confronting the Arab world and the EU, these sorts of summits, where heads of governments interact as they try to find solutions to crises in Syria, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere, are held regularly,” Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, told the Weekly.
As Washington disengages from the region China is increasing trade and has established a military base in Djibouti. Russia is also upping its influence. But the vacuum left by the US could still benefit EU plans.
“I think the EU’s actions are very important because of the withdrawal of the United States from its traditional role in the region. The US is pulling its forces from Syria and is no longer funding UN bodies dealing with Palestine and some other areas.
The EU must step in. It is vital that the EU, its leaders, plus the UK whether inside or outside the EU, takes action and cooperates with Arab countries over issues of concern to both blocs,” says Doyle.
Not that anyone in Europe expects the road ahead to be easy. As a British source admitted to the Weekly, “playing an instrumental role in the region has always been difficult because of the US’ overwhelming leverage and immense political, economic and strategic interests.”
But the problem is not simply one of US dominance. The EU has its own shortcomings.
“The biggest challenge for the EU is to develop a common foreign policy towards the Middle East. Within the EU we see examples of governments like that under Viktor Orban in Hungary which have adopted anti-immigrant positions very different from the German government. There are divisions over Syria, Yemen and Saudi Arabia and internal differences over the rise of the far-right parties. These divisions within the EU effect its ability to develop a cohesive strategy,” says Doyle.
“But there is no question about the EU needing to try to address the crises in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and indeed Palestine. And they must do it in a way that is sustainable and address the causes.”
Federica Mogherini, high representative of the EU for foreign affairs and security policy, stressed during the summit the importance of ending the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, explaining that the EU remained committed to a Palestinian state being established that can exist alongside Israel.Both states could have Jerusalem as their capital, she said.
The latter qualification represents an attempt, by both the EU and the Arab League, to distance themselves from the US administration’s position signalled when President Donald Trump ordered the US Embassy in Israel to move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The biggest elephant in the room, however, was Iran.
The EU has a vast economic, political and strategic stake in seeing the Iran nuclear deal upheld. EU countries opposed Washington’s withdrawal from and re-imposition of sanctions against Iran. Many Arab countries, however, particularly in the Gulf, acted as cheerleaders for Trump’s withdrawal from the deal.
“Tensions between countries in the region, Arab states and others and Iran, must be resolved. If we allow them to continue the worst will happen. It is a cold war that has been going on for years and the tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, or Israel, play out on many battlefields, as we witnessed in Syria and as we are seeing now in Yemen,” says Doyle.
Tusk, president of the European Council which organises summits for EU countries, acknowledged “there are differences between us,” but said close neighbours had more at stake in resolving regional conflicts than distant powers. Mogherini sounded a more optimistic note, saying “we agree on 90 to 95 per cent of issues.”
The EU needs to change its role in the Middle East from being a major donor to a power that has “positive political influence”, says Doyle.
“It will take some time for the EU to construct a coherent regional policy, and involve more than providing donations to rebuild decimated societies in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. What is needed is a political process to address the underlying causes of the conflicts.”
“I very much hope this is not a one-off summit. There are issues such as human rights and progress in terms of political reform that concern the EU, but the process also has to address Arab states’ interests. We have to have cooperative relationships, where each party listens to the other.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 February, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Building on stability