Representatives from more than fifty countries, including most of the leaders of the European Union member states, met in Egypt last week to discuss a common agenda on migration, terrorism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and other mutual concerns. The two-day gathering has been seen in the region as an important and symbolic first step, albeit one that is unlikely to bring about much in the short term. Still, the high-level representation and willingness to engage in serious discussions on sensitive and pressing topics implies, at the very least, a recognition on the part of both groups of countries of the necessity of working together in the face of increasingly complex challenges.
The modest ambition of the summit organizers is perhaps best summed-up by a recent op-ed for Al Ahram by Reem Leila, who felt the Sharm El-Sheikh meeting was “more like a team-building event than a traditional summit. Although the huge conference room meant that leaders could not see the other end of the table, pictures outside the main conference hall showed one-on-one discussions between the world leaders.... In his address to the summit Al-Sisi underscored the importance of the summit as a platform for direct and constructive dialogue on regional and international issues and threats.... [European President Donald] Tusk, meanwhile, identified many of the fields in which the EU was keen to develop cooperation, including education, employment creation, investment and trade.”
Guest writing for the Khaleej Times, Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli were keen to emphasize the symbolic significance of the meeting between EU member states and Arab League countries, while expressing the hope that “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.... 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.”
Similarly, a National’s editorial argues that the value of this initial meeting between the various heads of state and their representatives lies in the foundations it set for further cooperation between the two regions: “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.... 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.”
Not everybody sees the event as purely symbolic. A Jordan Times editorial highlights the broad agreement the meeting accomplished regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “The Sharm El Sheikh Arab-EU summit ended with a promising communiqué, assuring and supporting the Arab position on the Palestinian problem, including the two-state solution, the unequivocal support to UNRWA and condemnation of the Israeli settlement activity on Palestinian land and the continuing Israeli designs on East Jerusalem. Fifty countries were represented at the summit... What they said and agreed upon will go a long way to lending support and understanding of the Arab point of view, not only on the Palestinian case, but also on other regional conflicts.... There is a lot that is common between the two groups of countries, and the sharing of interests between the EU nations and the Arab countries has been demonstrated time and time again.”
An al Ahram editorial, on the other hand, used the decidedly globalist occasion to make an argument in favor of the strengthening of the traditional role of the state: “the region’s modern history has proven that the continuity and maintenance of the nation state entity, and its reform if necessary, is the key to stability and the first step towards regaining security for peoples fearful over their future, opening the door to development efforts. Therefore, cooperation between Arab and European nations should be strengthened in order to reinforce the institutions of the state to face the difficult challenges ahead, while respecting the principle of citizenship as the only means to confront sectarianism and extremism. The state is primarily responsible for controlling its borders, ensuring respect for the rule of law and safeguarding the lives and rights of its citizens. Thus, it is important to disregard any call, whatever its source or motive, that could lead to the destruction of states and associated institutions.”
Finally, Arab Times’s editor-in-chief, Ahmed Al-Jarallah, urged the Europeans to move beyond the “misconceptions” of the past, to make a clear break from Iran, and to fully embrace partnership with Arab countries: “For centuries, the relationship between Europe and the Arabs has been based on conflicts and wars. Such a history affected both sides which continue to endure the repercussions. This has been evident in the last five decades due to misconceptions on various issues.... Consequently, the first step is for the EU to abandon hope on interim economic opportunities with Iran. Instead, it should strategically look into the threat posed by the Mullah regime to the future of the region and the world. Today, it is possible for the countries gathering in Sharm El-Sheikh to make their way towards a new glory by grasping opportunities which are abundant in the world and the region. They should utilize the Arab pathway to Africa in order to deepen the development partnership. Nonetheless, all this will not happen unless the past theories which ruined European-Arab relations are discarded and development becomes the main focus of the new stage.”