Could EU-Arab League summit solve Europe’s migrant crisis?

Cooperation has been increasing between the European Union and some North African countries, including Egypt.
Sunday 30/09/2018
A migrant boat is stranded in the Strait of Gibraltar, on September 8. (AFP)
Turbulent waters. A migrant boat is stranded in the Strait of Gibraltar, on September 8. (AFP)

LONDON - The European Union is pushing ahead with efforts to increase cooperation with Arab countries, particularly those in North Africa, regarding migration and refugees, with an EU-Arab League summit mooted for next February in Cairo.

The announcement followed a meeting of the 28 EU leaders, during which European Council President Donald Tusk called on the European bloc to stop the “blame game” and work with the foreign countries migrants are leaving.

“Instead of taking political advantage of the situation, we should focus on what works… We can no longer be divided into those who want to solve the problem of illegal migrant flows and those who want to use it for political gain,” Tusk said September 19.

Following the EU meeting, Tusk and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who holds the rotating EU presidency, visited Cairo where they met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Egyptian presidency spokesman Bassam Rady said the meeting dealt with issues including “mutual interests on combating illegal migration.”

The European Union earlier proposed “regional disembarkation platforms” for migrants being set up around the Mediterranean, including North Africa, where migrants and refugees rescued at sea could be hosted. This has become particularly critical because some European countries are closing their ports to rescue ships.

However, with almost every North African government rejecting this idea out of hand, few believe the “regional disembarkation platforms” are a workable project, leading the European Union to try to resolve the issue directly with Arab governments.

“There is no northern African country that is willing or ready to take European responsibility,” acknowledged the European Union’s top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, “but this doesn’t mean that North African countries would not be ready to cooperate with us.”

Cooperation has been increasing between the European Union and some North African countries, including Egypt, which hosts the headquarters of the Arab League and is the proposed setting of next year’s summit.

“Egypt has proven that it can be efficient,” Kurz said. “Since 2016, it has prevented ships from Egypt to Europe or, when they have sailed, it has taken them back.”

“This is the first country in North Africa willing to talk to us about the fight against illegal migration,” said an unidentified EU diplomat quoted by the Associated Press. “This is something new and potentially rewarding.”

While Cairo is willing to take advantage of closer economic cooperation with Europe, few say that Egypt would compromise over the issue of “regional disembarkation centres.” As a matter of national policy, Egypt does not have refugee camps on its territory, despite hosting around 5 million refugees and immigrants.

“EU reception facilities for migrants in Egypt would violate the laws and constitutions of our country, Egyptian parliamentary Speaker Ali Abdel Aal told German newspaper Welt am Sonntag in July.

While the “regional disembarkation platforms” idea appears dead on arrival, this does not mean Egypt and other North African countries, such as Morocco and Algeria, could not agree direct deals with Europe to step up their efforts.

The European Union recently agreed to provide Morocco with $275 million in aid to help with basic services and job creation in return for Rabat agreeing to halt the flow of illegal migrants to Spain. Several other Moroccan programmes are being supported by the European Union with the understanding that the Rabat government would thwart illegal migration. More than 38,000 illegal migrants are believed to have entered Spain via Morocco this year.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently praised Algeria for its “constructive cooperation” in repatriating rejected asylum seekers, and an EU report confirmed that EU-Algerian relations have been “stepped up on both bilateral and regional questions.”

The main source of illegal migration into Europe from North Africa remains lawless Libya, which is mired in chaos and division. It is there, more than anywhere else where North African countries, and particularly Egypt, could play a crucial role.

“Egypt and North African countries can be important partners for us in preventing ships heading to Europe and after the rescue, them being brought back — in other words to the countries of transit. Only in this way can we reduce illegal migration,” Kurz said.

If Sisi was to agree to use his influence with Libya’s military and militias, particularly given Egypt’s close ties to Libyan Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army in the east of the country, this could prove valuable in Europe’s mission to address the migration issue.

With more than 700,000 migrants waiting in Libya for passage to Europe, Britain’s National Crime Agency estimated, Libya is key to resolving Europe’s migration problems. Egypt and other North African countries could prove vital to those efforts, provided that the price is right.