EU leaders in Cairo announce trade and migration deal with Egypt

Deal will supply Egypt with €7.4 billion in financing until 2027 in exchange for greater co-operation on migration

Abdel Fattah El Sisi and Ursula von der Leyen meet at the Presidential Palace in Cairo. Egyptian Presidency Media Office / AP
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European leaders at a summit in Cairo on Sunday announced a €7.4 billion funding package and the upgrading of the EU's relationship with Egypt to a “strategic partnership", a key part of which is to curb illegal migration across the Mediterranean.

The deal follows a similar agreement with Tunisia last year, and before then, a deal with the Libyan government in Tripoli, to link a range of assistance to efforts to curb migration.

The European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen arrived in Cairo on Sunday at the head of the EU delegation, which also included the Italian and Greek prime ministers and the Cypriot president.

Ramadan Kareem. Today is truly a historic moment
Ursula von der Leyen

"Ramadan Kareem. Today is truly a historic moment. Today we announce the signature of our Joint Declaration for a Strategic and Comprehensive Partnership with Egypt," Ms von der Leyen said at the summit.

"We want a partnership on many matters ranging from trade and investment to controlling migration."

Ms von der Leyen said the partnership will be built on six main pillars which include "matters of regional importance", economic stability, investment and trade, migration and mobility, security and law enforcement.

Under the deal, which aims to increase Egypt-EU co-operation predominantly in renewable energy, trade, and security, Cairo will receive a total of €5 billion in cash between 2024 and 2027, €1 billion of which will be received this year, according to statements by senior EU officials.

The remaining €2.4 billion will comprise grants, investments and partnership agreements in various sectors.

The funding package is the third to be secured by cash-strapped Egypt since the start of the year and follows the signing of an investment deal with the UAE in late February under which Cairo will receive $35 billion. That investment deal helped greenlight a long-awaited loan from the IMF worth $8 billion.

The North African country has been struggling with record inflation that has exacerbated poverty among its 105 million population. Cairo is grappling with its highest external debt levels in history and a more than 70 per cent drop in the value of the local currency following four devaluations since 2022.

The announcement of the deal, which has been in the works since last year, according to Ms Von der Leyen, comes as the civil war in Sudan, which shares borders with Egypt, has raised concerns in Brussels over increased levels of illegal immigration.

The civil war has already resulted in the internal displacement of six million people, 1.4 million of whom have fled into five neighbouring countries: the Central African Republic (CAR), Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, and South Sudan.

In October, the UNHCR said 317,000 Sudanese migrants had crossed into Egypt since the civil war began in April of last year.

The commission also expressed concerns about "the unfolding catastrophic humanitarian situation" in Gaza and urged Egypt to continue its efforts to broker a ceasefire and deliver aid.

European countries received 330,000 undocumented migrants in 2022, the highest rate since 2016, according to data from Frontex, the EU border agency.

Egyptians made up the highest group of illegal migrants to Europe who arrived through the central Mediterranean route, which was used by more than 100,000 migrants in 2022, Frontex said.

Most illegal migrants set sail for Europe on boats that depart from either Libyan or Turkish ports which they first travel to by plane, according to a July 2022 report by the European Union Agency for Asylum (EUAA).

Curbing illegal migration has been an important point of co-operation between the government of the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, the Egyptian military and the EU.

Sunday’s deal has been denounced by activists as a means of Europe achieving its interests at the expense of human rights, particularly where it concerns the treatment of migrants seized in the Mediterranean by the Egyptian military.

The EU was accused in a December 2023 Human Rights Watch report of ignoring rampant human rights abuses by its Middle Eastern and North African state partners.

The organisation urged the EU to use such deals to pressure Arab and African leaders to protect their own people’s rights as well as the EU’s interests.

A similar deal signed with Tunisia in 2023 was met with criticism by rights groups, most of whom are highly critical of the rule of president Kais Saied, whose government is accused of ignoring beatings and detentions of Black African migrants.

Following the deal, Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) said the deal with Tunisia “makes the EU directly complicit in the ongoing abuse” of migrants trapped in the country.

The EU is Egypt’s biggest trading partner, and is responsible for around 25 per cent of Egypt’s trade volume.

EU exports to Egypt amounted to around €20.9 billion in 2022, while it imported Egyptian goods worth around €16.3 billion during the same year.

Egypt exported 80 per cent of its liquefied natural gas output to the EU in 2022 following the signing of a deal, in which Israel was a third party, to shore up European energy supplies in the wake of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Before the conflict, Russia had been Europe’s biggest supplier of fossil fuels, accounting for more than half of the continent’s demands in 2020, but Europe eliminated Russian gas imports following the 2022 invasion.

Updated: March 17, 2024, 9:17 PM