"What brings together the two regions immeasurably exceeds what divides them": so said Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El Sisi at the opening of the Arab-EU summit on Sunday, an unprecedented meeting of 50 nations coming together for frank discussions on mutual challenges. The two-day summit in the Egyptian resort of Sharm El Sheikh comes as both regions are riven with internal conflicts and divisions. Yet some of those problems are common to both and know no borders. From how to deal with migration to countering extremism and terrorism, co-operation is likely to bring both regions a step closer to finding solutions.
The conference is primarily symbolic but has given a chance to affirm strong ties and marks a positive step that could lead to concrete action on pressing issues. Extremism is a universal problem requiring concerted joint efforts to combat it and stop it spreading. That is applicable from Egypt’s ongoing battle with an Al Qaeda offshoot in the Sinai Peninsula to defeating ISIS in Iraq and Syria, a fight which led to a global coalition of 79 countries, to countering terrorism attacks on European soil.
Then there is the challenge of migration, which Mr El Sisi said need not be seen as a problem but a chance to work together. Organised and safe migration, he suggested, could fill gaps in the labour market in the EU. Egypt has reportedly been looking into deals to police its coastline to curb illegal migration in return for European investment. In 2016, Turkey struck a similar deal with the EU, whereby migrants arriving in Greece whose asylum applications were rejected could be sent back; Italy followed suit with Libya a year later. Such deals have been far from perfect and have, in the case of Italy, led to allegations of Libyans being returned to dangerous conditions. Co-operation is also undermined by a lack of cohesion on the European side as the migration crisis has led to a rise in populist movements and racism in host countries, prompting often inhumane decisions, such as the closing of Italian ports to rescue ships. This explains, in part, why the overall number of migrants reaching Europe and deaths at sea have declined but the death rate has steadily risen since 2015, as thousands put their lives at risk in desperation.
Co-operation is key in transnational matters but it must also work to protect the rights of the most vulnerable members of society. In his speech, the Egyptian president insisted that “organised and safe migration to Europe could achieve mutual interests, when done side by side with combating human trafficking”. This unprecedented summit gathering nations from both sides of the Mediterranean will hopefully encourage leaders to tackle the challenges of our time with greater efficiency and humanity. The alternative – of failure that “future generations will hold us accountable for” – is too bleak to contemplate.