Renewed Bilateral Relations: Talking Points from the First LAS-EU Summit

The first ever joint summit between the Arab League and European Union came and went, as major leaders convened in Sharm El Sheik, Egypt on 24-25 February 2019. Topics that were discussed in the summit included the challenges that both blocs are facing such as terrorism, illegal migration and climate change. Egypt’s president Abd El Fatah El Sisi and President of the European Council Donald Tusk were co-chaired the summit which was attended by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman, President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Junker, British Prime Minister Theresa May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. While both blocs and some individual states within both blocs have disagreements with regards to how to resolve these issues, both agreed that it was necessary to have constructive conversations on said issues. The fact that both parties have shown the willingness to convene and discuss these topics in a civil manner can be interpreted as a major positive step toward improved bilateral relations between Arab and European states.

TERRORISM

In his opening statement, co-chairman to the summit, President Abdel Fatah El Sisi of Egypt, said that terrorism was spreading like a “cursed plague” as he called on world leaders to do their part to stand up against terror.

Just days before the joint summit, Egypt had been hit by two subsequent terror attacks, one in North Sinai and the other in Cairo. This indicates the ongoing battle many Arab states face against terror and the underlying need for a concerted international effort to fight against these attacks and take preventative measures to protect civilian lives.

He also affirmed that certain states use terrorism as a tool to spread chaos towards neighbouring countries. While he did not specify any state in particular, the statement was most likely alluding to Qatar and Turkey, two states with close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, a pan-Islamist group classified as a terrorist organization in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

President El Sisi also stated that Egypt had a comprehensive vision to combat terrorism and that the vision was one that could appeal to all participating parties and appealed to the protection of human rights.

Meanwhile, Donald Tusk prioritised the role of education in helping to neutralise violent extremism.

YEMEN CRISIS AND IRANIAN EFFORTS TO DESTABILIZE THE MIDDLE EAST

The Saudi monarch, King Salman Bin Abdulaziz used the summit as an opportunity to discuss the continued Yemen crisis. He urged the international community to support the legitimate government in Yemen and blamed Iran for supporting Houthi rebel militias in Yemen, thus making it difficult to find a political solution to the crisis. The rapid need for humanitarian aid delivery to Yemen was also agreed on in the summit’s final statement. Just days after the summit concluded, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE lead the way in the UN’s third pledging conference for Yemen, as both Gulf States provided $1.5 billion in funds for the war ravaged country. King Salman has also urged for more international pressure on Iran as its regime has proved to be a destabilizing force in the region. Such calls were addressed in the 13th article of the summit’s final statement which called for the preservations of “the global nuclear non-proliferation architecture, based on the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and the objective of a Middle East region free of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery”.

PALESTINIAN ISSUE

Both King Salman and President Abdel Fatah El Sisi asserted the importance of the Palestinian cause and the fact that most Arab states prioritise the issue. King Salman praised EU countries’ stances on the issue, while El Sisi held a meeting with Mahmoud Abbas the president of the Palestinian National Authority. In the meeting, El Sisi said that Egypt would continue its efforts towards the reconciliation of Palestinian factions. Both leaders reaffirmed their stances of a two-state solution based on 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state. In his opening statement, Jean-Claude Junker stated the European Union’s efforts for a diplomatic solution to the problem, reminding the audience of the EU’s continued aid to the Palestinians. Article 7 of the final statement affirmed both blocs’ “common positions on the Middle East Peace Process, including on the status of Jerusalem”, moreover it declared both sides’ commitment of reaching a two state solution “on the basis of all relevant UN resolutions”.

SYRIA, LIBYA AND REGIONAL STABILITY

The main theme of the conference was the establishment and maintenance of stability in the Middle East, this issue is also important for European states since history has proven that instability in the Arab world will inevitably spill over to European lands.

With regards to Syria, the final statement asserted the need of a peaceful political transition in Syria, one that is based on UN Resolution 2254 which called for a ceasefire in Syria and a Syria-led transition towards free and fair elections and an adoption of a new constitution. The statement also condemned all acts of terror and human rights violations on Syrian civilians and called for all parties guilty of such acts to be held accountable. Jean-Claude Juncker also indicated that the EU has provided $17 Billion in humanitarian assistance to the Syrians and that the EU will be working closely with the Arab League in that regard.

On Libya, both blocs agreed to support UN efforts in implementing the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement and called on Libya to try not to do anything that would derail its path toward a peaceful democratic transition.

As such, it is evident that both parties agreed that their close geographical proximities and shared histories has made it undeniably imperative to establish stability within the region as to ensure peace within both Europe and the Arab world.

CLIMATE CHANGE

One of the global challenges discussed in the summit was that of climate change. Despite not being a hot topic issue in the summit, Junker did mention the importance of committing to the Paris Climate Agreement in his opening statement and even commended Morocco for its solar panel plant. Donald Tusk also stated that their needs to be a real political will to achieve the Paris Agreement. Furthermore, the third article of the final statement talked on multilateralism to tackle a myriad of global challenges which included climate change.

ENSURING A BETTER FUTURE

The summit discussed the importance of establishing a better future for today’s youth. Donald Tusk indicated that key for change in both regions centres on the role of the youth. Jean-Claude Juncker took the opportunity talk about trade and investment between the Arab League and European Union, stating that increased investments and trade would create more opportunities for both parties, as the EU is the primary investor for the Arab League. He would also say that there is a need to further promote trade and investment between both entities as to create more job opportunities for those living in both blocs. He further expressed the importance of giving hope to the youth living in Arab countries.

Luckily, both Egypt and Saudi Arabia have thus far exerted efforts towards working for a better future for their youth. For example, since 2017 Egypt has hosted the annual World Youth Forum in which thousands of Egyptian and international youths convene to discuss many underlying issues plaguing the world today. Participants also prepare presentations on an idea he or she believes can help make a positive impact on the world. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia recently launched its Vision 2030 initiative which seeks to shift its energy-focused economy into other sectors. It also seeks to create more opportunities for young people living in the Kingdom, for example, the Kingdom’s plans to become a technological hub by 2030 has encouraged many young men and women to seek new fields to get into and master.

 




Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (R) meets Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud (L) within The EU-League of Arab States (LAS) Summit in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt on February 24, 2019 (Getty)

BREXIT

While the issue of Britain leaving the European Union was not on the discussion agenda, the fact that Theresa May, Angela Merkel, Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker came to Sharm El Sheik was a dead giveaway that the European leaders were going to discuss the issue alone. Before arriving in Egypt, May postponed the parliamentary “meaningful vote” to March 12, just over three weeks before the UK is meant to leave the EU on March 29, leaving many to speculate that she is attempting to run down the clock to make her deal the only viable option. Given the circumstances, both Donald Tusk and Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz suggested that Brexit be delayed and Article 50 to be extended. Nevertheless, May stayed adamant on the May 29 deadline day, feeling confident that her deal would go through parliament.

AFTERMATH OF SUMMIT

Both the Arab League and the European Union praised the summit as a success, as both promised a new era in bilateral relations and cooperation. Moreover, it became apparent that both blocs face shared challenges that they must overcome together, for instance, Angela Merkel noted: “The fate of the European Union depends to a significant degree on the fate of the countries of the Arab League.” Arab League spokesman Mahmoud Afifi said that the most significant outcome from the summit was the EU’s new understanding of how the Arab World and the Middle East operates. There is now new hope that these renewed bilateral relations and understanding will lead to more concrete and cooperative efforts from both sides in tackling the threats they share be they terrorism, illegal migration, armed conflicts or climate change. It is also paramount that the European Union applies more pressure on both state and non-state actors that pose a danger to the stability of the Arab World and the Middle East, lest the chaos spill over to Europe. Both blocs now have three years to address the issues they discussed before their next joint summit set to take place in Brussels, Belgium in 2022.

Egypt can also be happy with the summit as it exposed one of its significant Red Sea resorts to the world and photos of European leaders enjoying Sharm El Sheik has sent a message to the world on the Egyptian government’s efforts in restoring the national security. This comes at a critical time in which initial reports indicate that 9 million tourists visited the country in 2018, a record turnout since the 2011 events. Furthermore, these same reports indicate that the revenue from the previous year might be as high as $9 billion dollars indicating Egypt’s tourism is on the rise.


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