EU leaders push on security and border control in the first EU – Arab League meeting

On February 24th and 25th, in Sharm el-Sheikh, European and Arab League leaders took part in the first League of Arab States-European Union summit, presided by Donald Tusk, president of the European council and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egyptian president. At the summit, several high-level EU leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian and British prime ministers, Giuseppe Conte and Theresa May, were present. Migration was one of the main topics that was discussed, with the EU interested in giving the Arab League a bigger role in curbing migration. The two blocs have agreed to hold the summit every three years in rotation, with the next gathering due in Brussels in 2022.

The two days meeting was opened by the words of Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, Egyptian Presidentagainst terrorism: “the danger of terrorism has spread across the whole world like a pernicious plague (…) Today we badly need to assert our co-operation against this danger and stand united against this plague, which cannot be justified under any name.”

However, it was Europe’s perceived migration problem was at the heart of the meeting. Since the EU is in a delicate pre-election phase just ahead of the EU Parliament elections, Donald Tusk underlined in his speech “we must work together – countries of origin, transit and destination in order to break the business model of smugglers and traffickers who lure people into dangerous journeys and feed modern-day slavery”. Despite the public display of unity, just drafting a pre-summit statement has proved difficult. Indeed, EU and Arab League foreign ministers failed to agree earlier this month on a text after Hungary objected to the section on migration.

In the opinion of the Washington Post, the central aim of the meeting was to create a dominant role for Egypt in the Mediterranean ‘migration police’, border control and the externalization of EU borders. Indeed, the EU political leaders want more support from el-Sissi on the control of the Mediterranean Sea. Through a more central role of the Egyptian Coast Guard, further restriction of migration flows could be reached. On this topic, Catherine Woollard, Secretary General of the European Centre for Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), says: “In recent years Europe strategies has been about prevention of migration to Europe and this is something we are highly concerned about because many of those who try to reach Europe are Refugees that people entitle to protection. And Europe cannon should be doing more to host refugees, there are ten times as many displaced persons hosted by African countries than they are all about Europe.”

The summit is at the centre of numerous criticisms, many of which claimed that the audience was too high-level to have a real impact on effective policies, as stated by Marwan Kabalan, a Syrian writer and researcher at the Doha-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies “I personally do not expect much from this summit. It is too big to have the participants agree on any of the issues that are on the table for discussion.”

Central statements on the agenda were included, additionally, the situation in Yemen, Syria and in particular on the political situation in Libya, which was addressed in the final declaration of the summit “On Libya, we expressed our support for UN efforts and the implementation of the Libyan Political Agreement of 2015. We called on all Libyans to engage in good faith in UN-led efforts aimed at bringing Libya’s democratic transition to a successful end and to refrain from any action that might escalate tensions, further jeopardise security and undermine the stabilisation process. In this regard, we support the UN Special Representative’s action plan.”