Opinion and Editorial

Stage set for Arab countries and Europe to make a new start

Jon Van Housen & Mariella Radaelli (Euroscope)
Filed on March 2, 2019 | Last updated on March 2, 2019 at 07.14 pm

The overarching message is to stay engaged and enhance cooperation "to realise shared aspirations, promote peace, stability and prosperity, guarantee security, foster economic, social and technological development and create mutual opportunities".

It might have been largely ceremonial, too big and too short for real tangible results on a bewildering range of issues, but the fact that the first European Union-Arab League Summit took place at all is a sign that good will and common interests could bind the two regions closer together.

Held in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm Al Shaikh, the gathering was clearly important to the EU judging by the high level of representation it sent. Twenty-four of the EU's 28 top leaders arrived in Egypt for the two-day summit, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte, and UK Prime Minister Theresa May, who ensured her presence despite struggles at home in the ongoing Brexit crisis.

Also telling was the summit site itself. A resort popular with the French and Italian tourists, in particular, visitor numbers have plummeted in last few years. First it was the Arab Spring in 2011 that discouraged tourists, and then bomb explosion on a Russian jet that took off from Sharm Al Shaikh in 2015, claiming 224 lives.

Perhaps a metaphor of the summit, tourism is on the mend a bit today in Sharm Al Shaikh.

EU foreign policy head Federica Mogherini tried to strike a similarly optimistic tone when she noted before the summit that the Middle East "is a troubled region but also full of opportunities".

"We will have, first of all, discussions on our economic cooperation, on our common region," she said.

Working toward common goals is all the more challenging in two regions that are mired in complex and sometimes intractable disputes. A list of just the big priorities shows the complexity and daunting tasks facing both. The EU wants help in stemming illegal migration, fighting terrorism, and ending armed disputes in Libya, Yemen, and Syria.

Arab priorities include fighting militancy, ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, ensuring European support on Iran to change its policies in the Arab region, and promoting Arab-European trade.

Before the summit got underway, Marc Pierini, a former EU ambassador to Tunisia and Libya, told Agence France-Presse that it would likely struggle "to establish a dialogue between two sides that are confronted with their own challenges."

"Arab League unity is in trouble," said Pierini, now an analyst at the Carnegie Europe think-tank. "Arab countries are still feeling the effects of the revolutions that started in 2011."

And the EU, on the other hand, can hardly claim a united front. As telling as the list of the mighty who attended is the much shorter list of who did not. Notable in his absence was French President Emmanuel Macron. Shortly after he was elected in 2017, Macron made series of speeches calling for greater EU unity and strength, yet he has now failed to attend the Munich Security Conference and EU-Arab League Summit, both held in February.

Italy and others have accused France of serving its own perceived interests in the Middle East, particularly in Libya, where France has backed renegade general Khalifa Haftar despite UN-brokered support for Prime Minister Fayez Al Sarraj.

Hungarian Prime Minsiter Viktor Orbán did attend the summit, but his views are far from formal EU policy. Long opposed to EU decisions to accept and allocate refugees, in January he stepped up the rhetoric and called for 'anti-migration politicians' to take over in the upcoming EU elections in May. Those elections could change the face of the EU parliament and the policies it sets for the European Commission to administer. What is negotiated today could be rendered moot in a few months, adding more uncertainty to the many already intrinsic issues in the two regions.

Still, a long journey starts with the first step. At the conclusion of the summit on February 25, the two blocs issued a 17-point joint declaration, mostly reaffirming the existing UN-led initiatives in trouble spots. Its overarching message is to stay engaged and enhance cooperation "to realise shared aspirations, promote peace, stability and prosperity, guarantee security, foster economic, social and technological development and create mutual opportunities through a collaborative approach."

Climate change, trade, and investment were also among the subjects discussed as part of EU efforts to fill the leadership vacuum left by the current US administration, a void that could further empower Russia and China without countervailing efforts.

And by summit standards, the event came together relatively quickly after European leaders first proposed it at a meeting in Austria last September amid efforts to curb illegal migration that has sharply divided the EU.

At the conclusion it also set the place and date for the next summit, in Brussels in 2022.

"As this meeting concludes, our follow-up to the summit will speak louder than our words," European Council President Donald Tusk told delegates. "We must all work together to turn our words into action and we or our successors can take stock at our next summit."

For his part Egyptian President Abdel Fatteh El Sisi, host leader of the gathering, said the most important result could be "the extent to which this successful summit becomes a new milestone for the deepening of the historical relations between the European and Arab regions."

Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are editors at www.luminosityitalia.com news agency in Milan

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