The European Union (EU) and the League of Arab States (LAS) will hold their first-ever Heads of State Summit on February 24th and 25th, in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, to discuss how to further cooperation on a range of joint issues, including climate change, economic development, and illegal migration — which is a major focus for Southern EU states, as they are the frontline of migration to Europe from Africa and the Middle East.
“Whatever happens in the Arab world affects Europeans, and whatever happens in Europe affects the Arab world. We have the responsibility of joining forces to find common solutions to common challenges,” said the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, at a meeting earlier this month between foreign ministers from the EU and the LAS.
This lower-level meeting was intended as a way of setting the scene for the subsequent Heads of State Summit, where representatives from both sides discussed how to build peace and security, guarantee stability, foster development, and protect human rights.
The EU and the LAS, which is made up of 22 member states from Africa and the Middle East, have a long history of cooperation, given the regions’ close proximity to one another. In 2011, dialogue and collaboration between the regions heightened, as the Libya crisis broke out (starting with the Arab Spring protests). High-level dialogue was established then, and has been conducted regularly ever since, to deal with regional challenges, like the Arab Spring uprisings — that spread throughout North Arica and the Middle East — to the wars in Iraq and Syria.
In 2014 in Athens, foreign ministers from the regions got together and adopted the Athens Declaration, which officially put in place regular dialogue on political and security issues, including counterterrorism and crisis management.
In the years following the declaration, the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea into Europe surged, as people fled the wars in Syria, Iraq, and across Africa — from South Sudan to the Congo. EU-LAS cooperation, as a result, became more vital, especially to Southern European countries that remain at the frontline.
Hence, the proposal in September 2018 to hold the first Heads of State Summit between the two regional blocs.
Hopes have been high for this month’s summit. The Cypriot Foreign Minister, Nikos Christodoulides, left for Brussels earlier in the month to attend the foreign ministers meeting, with the objective of highlighting the role of Cyprus as the EU member state located closest to Arab countries, and an EU country that already has a substantive network of bilateral and trilateral cooperation agreements with Arab nations.
The Foreign Ministry announced that the meeting was important “since relations and the cooperation with countries from the broader region comprise a basic pillar of the foreign policy of the Republic of Cyprus”.
Similarly, the Maltese Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Promotion, Carmelo Abela, expressed the importance of the summit in January, saying, “Beyond EU-LAS relations, the Summit is itself a statement that the EU is a bold actor, with the confidence to play a prominent role in the Middle East and the Gulf; that, in spite of difficulties, the EU wants to remain actively engaged with the LAS and that, in a climate of uncertainty, the EU lives up to its responsibilities with its regional partners.”
Malta, another ‘frontline’ state vis-a-vis the Arab world, has held a strategic role in the regional partnership, hosting the European Commission-LAS Liaison Office, important to nurturing the relationship between the two regions and promulgating inter-regional outreach.
Yet despite these already developed ties between the EU and LAS, the two sides were unable to agree on a joint statement to end the foreign ministers meeting earlier in the month, with each side blaming the other for “complications”, in the words of the Arab League Secretary-General, Ahmed Aboul Gheit.
Part of the problem was the issue of migration — which should have been a sure thing, given the Europeans’ desire to curb migration, and the Arab League’s equal desire to halt illegal outflows. However, the Hungarian government — which has blocked migrants and refugees from entering the country — was against any reference to the word ‘migration’ being used in texts drafted ahead of the summit.
Additionally, the killing of US-based journalist, Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, in October, by Saudi operatives, has caused tension between one of the Arab world’s wealthiest economies and European leaders. The latter oppose the killing, and the message this sends about freedom of the press.
Other potential tensions include the inclusion and broadening Arab support of Sudan’s President, Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, and the possibility of Syria rejoining the Arab League when, and if, President Bashar al-Assad consolidates power.
Still, even with tensions and uncertainty in the air, the fact of the matter is Europe, Africa, and the Middle East need each other to solve the biggest issues of our time, from migration to terrorism to climate change.
Hopefully, with that in mind, the summit at the end of this month will prove beneficial to increasing cooperation between the regions.