First Arab-EU summit comes among diminished expectations

European and Arab leaders are to hold their first summit Sunday, in what is seen as a chance to boost cooperation across a troubled Mediterranean region.

President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi will host the two-day summit in Egypt’s Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh to discuss topics like security, trade, development, and migration.

The wars and conflicts in the Middle East and Northern Africa and the Maghreb are on the agenda at the summit guarded by security forces, also fighting a bloody jihadist insurgency in the Sinai.

But there are doubts over how much progress can be made, with Europe split over migration and Arab countries still grappling with the fallout from Arab Spring revolutions.

European leaders first mentioned the summit in Austria in September amid efforts to agree on ways to curb the illegal migration that has sharply divided the EU’s 28.

Checking migration is only part of Europe’s broader strategy to forge a new alliance with its southern neighbors.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini insists that the gathering in Egypt of more than 40 heads of state and government is about much more than migration. “We will have first of all discussions on our economic cooperation, on our common region,” she said.

Attending will be Donald Tusk, president of the European Council of EU member countries, and Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm. EU officials said 25 European heads of state and government will also attend.

Apart from El-Sisi, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri will attend from the 22-member Arab League, which is based in Cairo. It is not yet clear who else will be present.

The EU has struck aid-for-cooperation agreements with Turkey and Libya’s UN-backed government in Tripoli, which has sharply cut the flow of migrants since a 2015 peak. But a UN official said broader cooperation with the Arab League, which includes Libya, is limited as the EU is unable to speak in one voice.
said the summit will struggle “to establish a dialogue between two sides who are confronted with their own challenges.”

“Arab League unity is in trouble,” said Marc Pierini, a former EU ambassador to Tunisia and Libya, now an analyst with the Carnegie Europe think tank. The meeting comes as “the Arab countries are still feeling the effects of the revolutions started in 2011,” Pierini told AFP. With expectations low for EU-Arab progress, the focus may shift to EU efforts to break the logjam over Britain’s looming exit from the bloc on March 29.

Britain’s Philip Hammond said May would have an “opportunity” in Egypt to discuss Brexit with her EU counterparts who have balked at her requests for concessions to sell the divorce to her parliament. But officials in Brussels and London have played down the prospect of a Brexit “deal in the desert” to try to ensure an orderly departure.