Arab and European leaders began to gather on Saturday in Egypt’s Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh for an unprecedented European-Arab summit, a two-day, 50-nation meeting that could potentially prove long in symbolism but short on concrete actions.
The two regions – represented by the European Union and the Arab League – are bound by close ties dating back to ancient times but their Sunday-Monday meeting comes at a time when both are plagued by internal differences over a range of key issues.
Saudi Arabia's King Salman was among the leaders who arrived on Saturday. Yemen’s President Abdrabu Mansur Hadi is also expected. On the EU side, Germany’s Angela Merkel, Britain’s Theresa May and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte have confirmed their attendance at the talks.
The meeting’s agenda covers a wide range of topics, from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the war in Yemen to illegal migration, counterterrorism, investment and energy. The diversity and sheer number of topics underline the significance of the gathering as a mostly symbolic, albeit important, event.
“The purpose of the summit is not to issue resolutions, but rather conducting a transparent and candid dialogue on mutual challenges and the possible fields in which the two sides can cooperate,” Amr Ramadan, Egypt’s assistant foreign minister for European affairs, said in comments published Saturday.
The summit is the fruition of a series of ministerial-level meetings dating back to 2008. Foreign ministers from the two blocs have met five times since, with the last meeting earlier this month held in Brussels to prepare for the summit.
A draft of the meeting’s final communique leaked to regional media outlets lays bare its symbolic character.
Carefully phrased in diplomatic language apparently designed to head off objections by participants, the draft outlines in broad terms the principal positions of the two blocs on thorny issues such as Syria and Yemen, both torn by civil war, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The draft communique includes a proposal that the two blocs hold a summit every three years, with the next one in Brussels in 2022.
“The meeting represents an awakening in the European approach to the Arab region, but it lacks a clear strategy,” said Mohammed Anis Salem, a senior member of the Egyptian Council on Foreign Relations, an independent group, and a retired career UN diplomat. He pointed out the weakness of the Cairo-based Arab League, the region’s primary grouping which has long been reduced to a little more than a talking shop, and the differences within the EU over pressing domestic issues such as illegal migration.
“Migration is a top domestic issue for EU member states, but also the source of friction over what strategy is best to deal with it,” said Mr Salem, citing Hungary’s opposition to an EU-wide quota system for absorbing migrants. “And you also have France and Italy having a public diplomatic spat about what to do about Libya”, with the energy-rich North African nation ruled by two competing administrations backed by rival militias and a haven for militants.
The 22-member Arab League is not faring much better. An average of a half dozen Arab heads of state normally stay away from the group’s annual summit. The organisation is also weakened by rivalries or policy differences between its member states.
In contrast, the summit presents a significant diplomatic triumph for Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El Sisi. The general-turned-president has cultivated deep ties with Europe since taking office in 2014 through his seemingly tireless travels there and a series of mega trade deals, whether to buy advanced weapon systems, mostly from France and Germany, or give out energy contracts to the Italians and the Germans.
But what has endeared Mr El Sisi the most to the EU is his successful drive to staunch the stream of illegal migrants leaving Egypt’s Mediterranean shores for southern Europe and as his government’s costly efforts to fight Islamic militants at home and in neighbouring Libya, which the president says has become a magnet for extremists leaving Iraq and Syria.
The meeting also presents a valuable boost to Mr El Sisi's international standing. Earlier this month, Egypt took over the rotating one-year presidency of the African Union.