EU turbocharges cooperation with Egypt

Niveen Wahish , Tuesday 19 Mar 2024

Niveen Wahish examines the benefits of Egypt’s strategic partnership with the European Union

photo: AFP
photo: AFP

 

In a show of unprecedented support, six European Union (EU) leaders signed a joint declaration in Cairo this week strengthening the EU’s strategic and comprehensive partnership with Egypt. The new agreement covers six main areas of cooperation: political dialogue, economic stability, investment and trade, migration and mobility, security and law enforcement, and human resources and research.

“We share strategic interests in stability and prosperity,” EU President Ursula von der Leyen said during a joint press conference with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulidis, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.

“Given your political and economic weight, as well as your strategic location in a very troubled neighbourhood, the importance of our relations will only increase over time,” added Von der Leyen.

While Egypt and the EU have had an association agreement since 2004, the latest declaration strengthens the existing relationship between the two parties, says Khaled El-Sayed, managing director of Synerjies Centre for International and Strategic Studies.

The level of representation at the signing ceremony — five EU government heads and the president of the EU Commission — is testimony to the importance of the new agreement, points out Gamal Bayoumi, lead negotiator on the association agreement with the EU and later a member of many of the committees formed to oversee its implementation. He explained that negotiations used to be overseen by a supreme committee formed by the various parties’ ministries of foreign affairs and eight specialised committees.

The substantial financial and investment support package worth 7.4 billion euros provided to Egypt over four years by the EU is of key significance to the strategic partnership, said El-Sayed. The package will be instrumental in supporting Egypt’s socio-economic development efforts and could prove transformative in terms of Egypt’s macroeconomic reforms, infrastructure development, energy transition, digital transformation, and efforts to address migration challenges.

The package includes euros 600 million euros in grants, five billion euros in soft loans and 1.8 billion euros in additional investments within the framework of the economic and investment plan for the Southern Neighbourhood as well as 200 million euros for migration management. The EU Commission president also offered support for an EU-Egypt investment conference in Cairo later this year.

But what lies behind the timing of this sudden show of apparent largesse?

According to Bayoumi, except for Egypt and some Gulf countries, the Middle East is unstable. The situation in Gaza is one of the main reasons that the agreement has been finalised now, with EU concerns compounded by disruption to maritime trade routes passing through the Suez Canal.

The EU sees Egypt as a power that can help stabilise the region and so is trying to support it on several levels, says Bayoumi. EU leaders are well aware of the unrest on Egypt’s borders. On its western border, in Libya, there is civil war; in the south conflict is raging between Sudan’s Armed Forces and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and across the eastern border the Hamas-Israeli war continues to rage.

El-Sayed agrees. The EU’s partnership with Egypt is multifaceted and driven by a combination of geopolitical, economic and security considerations, he says.

“Egypt is positioned in a very critical location in the MENA and Mediterranean regions. It is strategically crucial for realising the EU’s broader foreign policy objectives.”

Migration is another important area of cooperation. According to the declaration, the EU will provide financial support to assist Egypt develop a holistic approach to migration which will include legal migration pathways in line with national competences, mobility schemes such as the Talent Partnerships, tackling the root causes of irregular migration, combating the smuggling of migrants and trafficking in persons, strengthening border management and ensuring dignified and sustainable return and reintegration programmes. The EU and Egypt will also continue to cooperate to support Egypt’s efforts in hosting refugees and both sides are committed to the protection of the rights of migrants and refugees.

Migration is of utmost importance to the EU, according to Bayoumi. Due to the unrest on the Egyptian borders, there is a flow of refugees to Egypt and the EU is keen not to see the problem exported to Europe. Egypt currently hosts nine million migrants.

Bayoumi wants to see Egyptian negotiators become more assertive on the migration level.” Instead of preventing illegal migration to Europe, Europe should act to stop the migration of European Jews to the occupied territories,” he says.

According to the agreement’s joint declaration, the EU is firmly committed to enhancing cooperation across the fields of renewable energy and renewable hydrogen, advanced industrialisation, agriculture, food security, connectivity and digitalisation, water security, and water management. They are areas that are expected to attract up to five billion euros of European investments supported by guarantees under the European Fund for Sustainable Development and Economic Investment Plan.

Energy is a key area of cooperation between the two sides. The EU Commission president pointed out that Gregy electric interconnector project which connects Egypt to Greece is central to Europe’s energy security. The project involves transporting green energy from Egypt to Greece, via a submarine electricity cable, from where it will be distributed across the EU.

“Egypt has all the resources to become a renewables hub, in particular when it comes to renewable hydrogen,” said Von der Leyen.

“You are keen to attract foreign investment, we have investors interested in Egypt and we have a memorandum of understanding on this. So let us press ahead with the work in this area.”

Through the package, the EU seeks to bring stability to the Egyptian economy, enhance investors’ confidence and foster sustainable growth, says El-Sayed. Investments in key sectors, including renewable energy, digitalization, and infrastructure development are expected to stimulate economic activity, create job opportunities and ultimately drive sustainable growth and development. According to Al-Sayed, the initiatives and projects supporting human capital development, education, and research collaboration are poised to enhance Egypt’s competitiveness and capacity for innovation, positioning the country for sustained growth and strengthening resilience against any future challenges.

As part of the agreement, the EU is committed to support technical and vocational education and training as well as cooperation on research and innovation, helping Egypt match skills with labour market needs.

Additional reporting Sherine Abdel-Razek

 


* A version of this article appears in print in the 14 March, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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