League and nations: Europe’s unity struggle at the Sharm El-Sheikh summit

The optics of the EU-Arab League summit could prove difficult for European leaders. Yet they barely agree on what they themselves want from it

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Last September the European Union agreed to its first-ever summit meeting with the Arab League, to be held this month in Egypt. The meeting was intended to be a high-profile affirmation of the two organisations’ commitment to work closely together on a range of mutual interests, with migration at the top of Europe’s list. The summit also fitted nicely into the EU Global Strategy Review, which encouraged greater cooperation with regional organisations. Yet, as the summit approaches, its optics seem rather different. Instead of a welcome chance to show the potential for the two to work together, the event – due to take place in Sharm El-Sheikh on 24-25 February – now looks more like a potential embarrassment for the EU and the European leaders due to attend.

The summit is likely to lack meaningful political content on the core issues that are currently driving conflict and instability in the region

The summit was always going to be more about symbolism than about any concrete decisions that might come out of it. EU states already work closely with Arab League members on topics that have become pressing European concerns in recent years. North African countries in particular are important partners in managing migration flows and sharing information on terrorism. From the perspective of European leaders, these partnerships are bringing results. The number of migrants reaching Europe across the Mediterranean from north Africa has fallen sharply from the high levels of 2015, even if the numbers crossing from Morocco to Spain have risen recently.

Against this background, the summit was not intended so much to unveil new initiatives but rather to highlight and give official recognition to a relationship that is largely meeting Europe’s immediate needs. The idea for the summit emerged after Sebastian Kurz, chancellor of Austria (which held the EU Council presidency last autumn), and EU Council president Donald Tusk met Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo. Egypt likes to emphasise the steps it has taken to prevent migrants leaving its shores for Europe, and Kurz and Tusk wanted to formalise and reward that cooperation by celebrating Egypt’s role. By allowing Egypt to host the summit, the EU would enhance Sisi’s international standing and deepen its relationship with other Middle Eastern and north African states.

The desire to lock in continued assistance with Europe’s short-term migration concerns in exchange for the recognition of treating Arab leaders as valued partners remains part of the rationale for the occasion. But the EU-Arab League summit was not meant to only be about migration and other transactional cooperation. Some European officials have privately said they hoped to project a sense of coherence onto key political and security issues affecting the region, and thus demonstrate the EU’s relevance to an Arab bloc that often seems to dismiss Europe as an insignificant power in its neighbourhood.

There will no doubt be much rhetoric about a shared commitment to multilateralism, trade, investment, and the pursuit of regional stability, with a focus on working together on significant longer-term challenges. But the summit is likely to lack meaningful political content on the core issues that are currently driving conflict and instability in the region.

More fundamentally, the lead-up to the meeting has again exposed Europe’s inability to present a cohesive and unified front on these issues. Rather than using the summit to demonstrate that Europeans can act together on core areas of shared concern, and thus emphasise to Arab states that they are dealing with the collective weight of the European bloc, the EU may end up achieving the opposite. Preparations for the summit have been marred by internal EU divisions, with member states unable to sign off on a joint political declaration at a meeting between European and Arab foreign ministers in Brussels in early February, despite Arab agreement on a draft version. For a summit that was always going to be more about symbolism than content, such disunity could further cement the picture of a divided EU that Arab countries need not take seriously.

Intended to showcase the relevance of multilateral bodies, the summit could instead end up highlighting that it is in fact key bilateral relationships that remain the most effective way of addressing core political and security issues. Moreover, the run-up to the summit stands as an object lesson in the changing dynamics of political symbolism. The rise within the EU of populist-nationalist forces, which see international declarations above all as a way of signalling to their domestic base, has made it hard to secure agreement on European public positions even when these involve no tangible consequences for the member states involved. And the symbolic import of European and Arab leaders ceremonially fêting each other seems less appealing now than when the summit was first mooted last autumn.

A few months ago, in a spirit of realism, fraternising with a group of largely authoritarian Arab leaders seemed like a price worth paying in light of the strength of European voters’ concerns about migration and other issues. Now, following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the outbreak of popular protests in Sudan, a ceremonial event that associates European leaders with the Saudi and Sudanese regimes seems less desirable. The EU has apparently received assurances that Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, the subject of an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity in Darfur, will not attend. But even so, Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and members of Bashir’s regime are not attractive figures for Europe. While European pressure ahead of the summit has played a role in ensuring that the Arab League has not yet begun the process of reintegrating Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, the fact that the host, Sisi, appears on the verge of securing an additional 12 years in power through an amendment to the Egyptian constitution also provides an unfortunate context for the event.

The EU has many valid reasons for cultivating ties to Arab leaders despite the authoritarian political order that is in place in the region. But a constructive relationship depends on a realistic assessment of the benefits that this order can offer Europe. It also depends on a common European front in its approach to Arab regimes. The regimes cooperate with the EU largely within the limits of what they perceive to be their own self-interest, while some trends within the region remain inimical to European objectives of long-term stability and inclusive development. A symbolic upgrade of the EU’s relations with the Arab League seems unjustified if it is not accompanied by new initiatives on security problems that have a real impact on Europe. As the summit approaches, European leaders should at least mitigate the potential symbolic discomfort of the occasion by ensuring that they meet their Arab interlocutors with an agreed position that expresses the full range of European interests and concerns.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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