The first ever summit between the Arab League and the European Union (EU) can be hailed as a success for allowing an interactive dialogue between Arab and European heads of states and governments to take place behind closed doors, away from the TV cameras and instant press coverage.
And the attendance of so many senior officials — heads of state, prime ministers and ministers — stands as testimony to the importance both Europe and the Arab world attach to such dialogue.
“The high-level of attendance allowed serious and frank discussions, as this first summit turned into an expanded forum in which to address shared areas of concern,” a senior European source told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“Disagreement in the press conference over human rights will not prevent Europe and the Arab world from working together to build upon the achievements of this inaugural gathering.”
“The priority in Europe is achieving and maintaining well-being for its people. Our priority is preserving our countries and stopping them from collapse, destruction and ruin, as you see in many surrounding states,” President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi said in response to a German journalist who asked if EU officials had raised human rights in their meetings with their Egyptian counterparts.
Al-Sisi has long argued Europe needs to cooperate more closely with its Arab neighbours in fighting terrorism. “A common mechanism in terms of ideas, raising capacities and depriving terrorist elements of the means to carry out their criminal activities is urgently needed,” he said.
Sources at the summit say the Europeans softened their position on illegal migration and adopted a new language in an attempt to close the gap on the issue with their neighbours south of the Mediterranean.
The language of the final declaration suggested a framework was being developed within which Europe and the Arab world could tackle the phenomenon.
The participants agreed to work through “effective multilateralism”, based on international law, “in order to tackle global challenges”, and reiterated their commitment to the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Illegal immigration will henceforth be addressed as an economic issue as well as a security concern. The new approach places migration in a more comprehensive context, including “the protection and support of refugees in accordance with international law; the upholding of all aspects of international human rights law; condemnation of all forms of incitement to hatred, xenophobia and intolerance; the strengthening of the fight against irregular migration and scaling up joint efforts to prevent migrant smuggling and eradicate human trafficking”.
“Euro-Arab summits will not bring peace to the Middle East but it they can give momentum to efforts to find solutions. Focusing on shared concerns will help overcome two major obstacles that have long hindered cooperation and mutual understanding: the privileging of national interests over regional goals, and the lack of a coherent roadmap towards balanced relations with a long-term vision,” said Roger Albinyana of the European Institute of the Mediterranean (IEMed) in Barcelona ahead of the summit.
In preliminary ministerial meetings held before the summit European foreign ministers and their Middle Eastern counterparts engaged in quiet interactive sessions where they discussed issues without reservations.
The attendees agreed to adopt a clear position in Sharm El-Sheihk. In stark contarst to issues such as illegal migration, the final declaration came with a long paragraph on the peace process: “We reaffirm our common positions on the Middle East Peace Process, including on the status of Jerusalem, and on the illegality under international law of Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.
We reiterate our commitment to reaching a two-state solution on the basis of all relevant UN resolutions as the only realistic way to end the occupation that began in 1967, including of East Jerusalem, and to achieve a just, lasting and comprehensive peace between Israelis and Palestinians through direct negotiations between the parties that address all final status issues.”
“Closed summits and regular consultations may be the best way to avoid any setbacks in the dialogue that remains necessary between the two parties after this first successful summit,” said an Egyptian diplomat.
Another Egyptian source argued the summit had achieved “the basic objective” of underlining the fact that the complex nature of current issues, on top of which are illegal immigration and terrorism, means they can only be tackled collaboratively.
It reinforced the growing conviction in European capitals that terrorism cannot be tackled away from supporting state institutions in Arab countries, an argument Egypt has made for several years in international forums, and at the bilateral level with European governments.
Greater understanding between Arab and European states is being built around the battle against illegal immigration and the fight against terrorism. It was inevitable, however, that at times Europe’s own divisions, given the ongoing Brexit debacle, would bubble to the surface.
“In a time of growing tension and unpredictability we need to work together, taking into account our shared interests and common challenges to create the right conditions for long-term stability, which is the only way to guarantee our citizens the peace and prosperity they deserve.
We must show them that our cooperation is comprehensive, strong and has a concrete impact on their everyday lives,” said European Council President Donald Tusk in his opening remarks.
The commitment participants expressed to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development entails a recognition that economic development in areas affected by armed conflict will be a major issue in the years to come.
In order to develop strategies that support the rebuilding of post-conflict societies European development institutions, such as the EIB, and their counterparts in the Arab world, were invited to attend the summit as observers.
“There are many areas where we can do this,” said Tusk, “from funding education to reducing unemployment; encouraging investment and helping to boost trade.”
The task now facing the EU and the Arab League is to create a mechanism to follow-up on the first summit’s recommendations and foster an atmosphere in which both sides can work together to enhance the stability, prosperity and well-being of both regions and the world at large.
Before the second summit convenes in Brussels in 2022, Arabs and Europeans must show they can translate the Sharm El-Sheikh summit’s slogan “investing in stability” into practical policies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 February, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Investing in dialogue