EU and Arab leaders eye first-ever summit as reset

18.02.2019

When EU leaders formally proposed a first-ever summit with the Arab League last September, many Arab leaders saw it as a victory of sorts, after having asked for such an event for 20 years.

With the summit just one week away, however, the gathering could be overshadowed by questions of attendance, along with the potential of hot-button issues such as migration to stymie broader agreement.

Who will show up?

On the EU side, attendance at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh is expected to be strong, with at least 20 member states committed to date.

But it remains uncertain whether leaders of some of the bloc's biggest nations will be among them. For example, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron have not yet committed. And British Prime Minister Theresa May, distracted by the Brexit endgame at home, has also not yet said whether she will attend.

On the Arab side, meanwhile, there is a question whether Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will attend at all, after having fallen from grace when Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in Riyadh's consulate in Turkey in October.

After an initial denial, Saudi Arabia admitted that Khashoggi – an outspoken critic of Prince Mohammed – was murdered inside the consulate. But Saudi officials have repeatedly denied the crown prince's links to the murder that drew global condemnations.

Numerous EU states imposed arms-sales bans and other measures against Saudi Arabia to protest the murder as well as the kingdom's participation in Yemen's devastating war. This would make the optics of a prominent Saudi role at the summit especially awkward.

Another unwelcome name is Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. In 2009 and 2010, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for al-Bashir on charges of war crimes. He has since defied the ICC indictment and travelled to several countries – including Egypt.

In recent weeks, however, several Arab countries have expressed backing for al-Bashir as he is facing the biggest street protests against his regime since he seized power in 1989.

Will there be a migration row?

When the summit was announced in September, the EU had been rocked by a series of electoral wins by right-wing, anti-migration parties across the bloc – despite a sharp drop in migrant arrivals since 2016.

The summit pitch was just one of numerous high-level efforts by EU leaders and officials to get ahead of this populist surge by deepening the bloc's relationship with the Middle East and Africa – the source of most refugees heading to the European Union. But Hungary and Italy, in particular, continue to spar with Brussels and EU states over migration politics.

Just earlier this month, EU and Arab League leaders were unable to sign off on the joint statement laying the groundwork for the summit – due to Hungary's objections over a reference to a UN global pact on migration. This spat could bode poorly if leaders try to agree on a statement at the summit that mentions the global pact.

More than 150 countries endorsed the non-binding agreement in December despite some high-profile opposition from the U.S. and several European countries.

The view from the league

On the Arab side, the summit's importance lies in its potential to advance agreement on investment and regional security, says James Moran, a research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies. "To them, migration is a secondary issue," he adds.

The event will also serve as an important venue for Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, who just secured parliamentary support for constitutional changes to stay in power potentially for 12 more years after his current term ends in 2022.

Egypt had long sought such a summit as a way to leverage its regional clout on a global stage, says Moran.

Sisi is "keen to raise his prestige in the Arab world and is doing everything to make that happen," says Moran, adding "the summit is one part of that push."

Despite Sisi's draconian crackdown on dissent and human rights record, Egypt has secured praise from some EU leaders and officials for its success in shutting down migrant routes to the EU.

The regional picture

The 22-member League is also expected to focus on anti-terrorism efforts, with one continuing concern being hard-line jihadists coming to the region from Europe.

Another likely topic is that the military break-up of the Islamic State in Syria could prompt fragments of the group to retaliate with attacks in Europe and the Middle East, Moran notes. In recent months, Syrian government forces, supported by Russia, have regained most territories from rebels and militants in the war-torn country.

Russia and Iran, which also back Damascus, have recently joined hands with Turkey, which supports certain rebel groups, on ending the seven-year conflict in Syria.

Another concern for summit participants is Yemen's four-year war, which has resulted in the world's worst humanitarian crisis, according to the United Nations.

Ultimately, the question of where both sides can find agreement on these daunting challenges remains unclear.

When EU and Arab foreign ministers met in early February, they were unable to come up with a joint statement and there remains no draft summit declaration.

Still, top EU diplomat Federica Mogherini – who has strongly pushed for the summit – emphasised after those talks the underlying need for greater co-operation. "Whatever happens in the Arab world affects Europeans and that whatever happens in Europe affects the Arab world," she said, adding both sides are "in the same boat."    (dpa)

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