The first ever EU-Arab Summit that took place last week in Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt brought together 49 countries from the League of Arab States and the EU. Against the back-drop of an Arab Spring which has become an Arab Winter, it resulted in a joint declaration full of solemn commitments that few observers believe will be implemented on the ground.
The President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, represented the EU at the Summit, alongside the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, who also co-chaired the Summit with the Egyptian host, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. The Summit was the first of its kind in this format and was described as historical by Al-Sisi.
In fact, another historical meeting took place in Kairo between the EU and Egypt in 2012 under its Islamist president Muhamed Morsi who a year later was ousted by Al-Sisi. Morsi was supported by Turkish president Erdogan, who condemned the EU leaders for attending a meeting in a country whose government only a week earlier had executed nine suspected Muslim Brotherhood members.
Another event before the Summit was the approval by the Egyptian Parliament of measures that would allow president Al-Sisi to extend his rule until 2034, pending a referendum on constitutional change.
EU leaders, on their part, claimed that they had raised human rights issues at the Summit, at least in bilateral meetings. “I would like us, together, to defend the fundamental values of respect for human rights and tolerance. Our common history and our geographical proximity call for us to work together,” Juncker said at the Summit’s opening session.
“Combined, the Member States of the League of Arab States and the European Union account for 12% of the world’s population. What we can do together, to ensure the stability of our regions and beyond, weighs much more than our demographic weight,” he added.
EU believes in soft diplomacy. Most member states fear that open condemnations of human rights abuses and embargos on weapons export might jeopardise their trade relations with the Arab countries. The same approach is applied with other countries. Tusk said at the press conference (25 February) that he was convinced that dialogue is always much better than confrontation.
Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the secretary-general of the League of Arab States, said at the press conference that the Summit had been closed to media at the request of EU and referred to talks about the philosophy of human rights.
Al-Sisi himself pointed to the different cultures in Europe and the Arab region. “Egypt is threatened by terror which easily could transform Sharm El-Sheikh to a ghost-city. You aren’t going to tell us about humanity,” he told his European guests.
At least the participants agreed to hold regular Summits, alternating between Arab and European states, the next one taking place in Brussels in 2022. And EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini concluded on a positive note:
“Sharm El-Sheikh is also called ‘the City of peace’. It is a good omen for our first summit, and it should remind us of why we are here. Peace and security in our times are strictly linked and can only be achieved when we invest in cooperation, rather than confrontation.”