Migration to be main topic of first EU-Arab summit

Arab and European leaders who will attend the summit are to arrive at Sharm el-Sheikh's International Congress Centre before the opening ceremony February 24.
Sunday 24/02/2019
A member of Egyptian security forces stands guard outside a conference hall in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. (AFP)
Uncertain path. A member of Egyptian security forces stands guard outside a conference hall in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. (AFP)

CAIRO - As Sharm el-Sheikh prepares for the first European Union-Arab League summit, expectations were that discussions would focus on counterterrorism, trade and investment and, most important, immigration.

This is the first meeting to bring together EU and Arab League officials and will seek to chart strategies to address common challenges facing the Arab region and Europe amid calls for strengthening cooperation between the two regions.

"Unrest and rampant conflicts in some Arab countries are turning the Mediterranean into an illegal immigration route from one of trade and shared economic benefit," said former Egyptian diplomat Mohamed al-Shazly. "This is why Arab-European cooperation is necessary to end this phenomenon and solve other problems facing the two regions.”

The summit was announced last September during a visit to Cairo by European Council President Donald Tusk and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who holds the European Union’s rotating presidency.

European and Arab foreign ministers met February 4 in Brussels to prepare for the summit and discuss challenges facing Europe and the Arab world. Among other important issues, those meeting in Brussels discussed migration, terrorism and climate change.

Diplomats and foreign policy officials on both sides expressed a commitment to deepen cooperation and build peace and stability, guarantee security, foster economic, social and technological development.

However, European leaders reportedly balked at meeting with some Arab leaders, including Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and Syrian President Bashar Assad. Neither al-Bashir nor Assad will attend the Sharm el-Sheikh meeting.

While the main topic at the meeting, immigration, is a contentious issue with Arab countries, which ruled out an EU proposal to host “disembarkation platforms” for refugees and migrants seeking to enter Europe from their territory.

Figures from last year indicates that up to 90% of people crossing the Mediterranean to Europe depart from Libya. European countries have, unilaterally, sought to strike deals with African and Arab countries over the issue, there has been no broader institutional action on it.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said fewer than 10,000 migrants and refugees reached Europe in the first six weeks of 2019, the vast majority by sea.

IOM figures indicate that the number of arrivals in Europe have decreased, with an estimated 186,768 arriving in 2017 and 144,166 in 2018. Despite this, the European Union is looking for more cohesive action, particularly given the number of people who die attempting the crossing -- 3,139 in 2017, 2,299 in 2018 and 217 so far this year.

Many of those making the precarious journey to Europe are fleeing violence and bloodshed in Syria, Iraq and Libya but this is bringing economic, security and social risks to Europe.

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini said that whatever happens in the Arab world affects Europeans.

"And whatever happens in Europe affects the Arab world," Mogherini added at the February 4 foreign ministers meeting in Brussels. "We have the responsibility of joining forces to find common solutions to common challenges."

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said the Sharm el-Sheikh summit would be a step on the road to developing stronger relations between Europe and the Arab world.

"Stability and security in the Arab region have their impacts on Europe and vice versa," he said February 16 at the Munich Security Conference.

Sisi will be co-chairman of the meeting with Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. Arab and European leaders are to arrive at Sharm el-Sheikh's International Congress Centre before the opening ceremony February 24.

The first day of the summit was to include one session. The second day’s schedule showed two sessions, including one to be attended by leaders on both sides, and a news conference.

Egypt is a good model for a country that has stopped being a source of concern for European countries. Egypt used to be a transit country for a huge number of illegal immigrants, originating in it and in African countries suffering conflicts, famine and poverty.

However, not a single case of illegal immigration had been registered in the country since September 2016, Egyptian presidency spokesman Bassam Radi said.

Behind stemming illegal immigration was intensive action by Egyptian authorities on the Mediterranean coast and huge investments that created greater opportunities for young Egyptians.

"European investments will help these states move ahead with their economic development plans and create opportunities for their youth," said Akram Badr Eddine, a political science professor at Cairo University. "This development will ultimately have its effect on curbing illegal immigration from these countries."