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EU and Arab League leaders in group photo at the first summit
Image: Getty Images/D. Kitwood

Terror, migration dominate EU and Arab League's first summit

February 25, 2019

European Union leaders and Arab League heads met for their first summit. Hosted by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, discussion topics included migration, terrorism and trade.


EU and Arab League leaders have concluded their first-ever summit in the resort town of Sharm El-Sheik in Egypt. They said in a final statement they were determined to start a "new era" of cooperation in different areas.

The two blocs agreed to hold regular summit meetings, with the next one due in Brussels in 2022, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said after the conference: "The fate of the European Union depends to a significant degree on the fate of the countries of the Arab League." 

Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel said the summit was important for acknowledging cultural, religious and other differences while trying to find "joint solutions," such as in Syria. However, he cautioned against raising high expectations.

 "If you think that by seeing each other for 24 hours in Sharm el-Sheikh and it's peace in the world and in the region, then you believe in Father Christmas," Bettel told reporters.

El-Sissi  opened the two-day talks with a call for tougher action against terrorism.

"The danger of terrorism has spread across the whole world like a pernicious plague," el-Sissi told attendees. "Today we badly need to assert our cooperation against this danger and stand united against this plague, which cannot be justified under any name."

Egypt has seen a wave of deadly militant attacks since the army ousted the democratically elected but divisive Islamist President Mohammed Morsi following mass protests against his rule.

Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi hosts the eventImage: Getty Images/AFP/M. El-Shahed

"Cooperation is necessary between the two regions to secure safe and legal migration in a way that will fulfill several joint interests," he said. "This should go hand in hand with combating human trafficking as part combating cross-border organized crime."

Donald Tusk, the head of the European Council, also spoke of migration in his address at the summit.

"We must work together — countries of origin, transit and destination — in order to break the business model of smugglers and traffickers who lure people into dangerous journeys and feed modern-day slavery," Tusk said.

He also called for closer cooperation between the EU and Arab countries, saying "there are objective reasons why we have to be closer — our neighborhood is something real, which means that being closer is in fact not a choice but a must."

High-level attendees

After the opening ceremony, the attendees held a closed session on enhancing EU-Arab partnership and addressing global challenges.

The high-profile summit comes as some Arab countries face economic and political crises and Europe sees a rise in anti-migration sentiment.

King Salman at the EU-Arab League summit
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman did not attend Image: Getty Images/AFP/M. El-Shahed

In recent months, the Islamic State has suffered military setbacks in Iraq and Syria, virtually ending the militant group's self-styled "caliphate." Its military collapse has raised fears that fragments of the group will retaliate with attacks in Europe and the Middle East.

Europe's foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini highlighted the importance of the summit but admitted there were disagreements between the sides.

"I think this summit is in itself a deliverable: the fact that it happens and that we established this practice for the future," Mogherini said, adding, "We will not agree on everything, as it is normal among friends and partners."

Human rights a delicate issue

European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker raised the issue of human rights in many Arab states.

"We have to talk to everyone, but you have to talk openly, without over-exaggerating the topic of human rights, but you should not underestimate it," he told reporters in the Red Sea resort.

The summit was well attended. Chancellor Merkel flew into Sharm el-Sheikh shortly after the start of the event and later joined a group photo with other attendees.

Two controversial Arab leaders did not attend. Saudi Arabia's powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman stayed away, while his father King Salman attended instead.

Many Western countries have kept their diplomatic distance from the crown prince since Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in Riyadh's consulate in Turkey in October.

His attendance would have put the Europeans in an awkward position as they try to strengthen cooperation with their Arab partners.

Another no-show was Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, against whom the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants on charges of war crimes.   

However, despite the public display of unity, just drafting a summit statement has proved to be difficult. EU and Arab League foreign ministers couldn't agree earlier this month on a text after Hungary objected to the section on migration. Work on the document is continuing. 

av/ng (AP, dpa)

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