EU-Arab League summit in Egypt is ‘insignificant, ceremonial’

The meeting of leaders from the EU and the Arab League in Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh will likely be fruitless, experts say.

A member of the Egyptian Special Forces stands guard outside the International Congress Centre on February 24, 2019, ahead of first joint European Union and Arab League summit in the Egyptian Red Sea
The two-day summit in Egypt's Sharm el-Sheikh aims to 'strengthen Arab-European ties', according to an EU statement [Mohamed el-Shahed/AFP]

Arab and European leaders are convening on Sunday in Egypt’s Red Sea resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh for the first ever EU-Arab League summit as the region faces turmoil and political challenges.

Overshadowed by internal divisions and regional issues, including the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Gulf crisis, regional wars, and Brexit, the two-day summit aims to “strengthen Arab-European ties”, according to an EU statement.

At least 24 European leaders will be welcomed by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who will be co-chairing the summit with European Council President Donald Tusk.

Leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian and British prime ministers, Giuseppe Conte and Theresa May, will be in attendance.

It remained unclear how many countries of the 22-member Arab League are attending the summit. 

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz arrived in Sharm el-Sheikh on Saturday. It was not yet known if his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has been under mounting international pressure over the Khashoggi murder, would also join the meetings. 

‘Ceremonial’ meeting

On the agenda, which officials struggled to settle on, are the issues of migration, security, the Middle East peace process, and the wars in Yemen, Syria, and Libya – countries that suffer from armed conflict, political deadlock, and economic deterioration.

But analysts say nothing fruitful will come out of the “ceremonial” meeting, which has been dubbed a “publicity stunt” for el-Sisi.

“I personally do not expect much from this summit. It is too big to have the participants agree on any of the issues that are on the table for discussion,” said Marwan Kabalan, a Syrian writer and researcher at the Doha-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies.

Kabalan believes the summit will endorse el-Sisi as a regional leader despite his government’s controversial policies that have unleashed a crackdown on dissent in the country.

Last week, Egyptian authorities executed nine suspected Muslim Brotherhood members convicted of involvement in the assassination of Egypt‘s top prosecutor Hisham Barakat.

No one claimed responsibility for the 2015 attack against Barakat, but authorities blamed members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood of overthrown President Mohamed Morsi.

Earlier this month, Egypt’s parliament backed a proposal to extend the former general’s rule until 2034 – a move that has garnered widespread criticism from opposition figures and activists.

Similarly, Mahjoob Zweiri, a Jordanian expert on Middle East politics, said the Egyptians want to maintain the Arab League as a tool to help give them political leverage in the Arab world.

“Without the League, Egypt has nothing, no impact whatsoever,” Zweiri told Al Jazeera. “Even while it’s dysfunctional, they will keep it going.”

Democratic transition?

Experts say European countries in attendance are mainly concerned about resolving two main issues – migration from North Africa and Syria, and counterterrorism.

European leaders perceive the region as a breeding ground for armed groups and refugees and are seeking the help of Arab governments to curb migration and eliminate security threats.

In a way, EU nations “are still dealing with the effects – not the roots or the causes of the problem”, Kabalan said.

“Despite admitting a link between despotism and terrorism, they do not seem willing to take the bold step and support democratic transition in the region,” he said. “On the contrary, they seem willing to support Arab autocrats so that they can help them secure their borders and seal it in the face of refugees.”

The issue of refugees, prevalent in Lebanon, was not addressed last month when Arab leaders gathered in Beirut for the Arab economic summit.

At the time, Lebanon’s parliament speaker Nabih Berri said Syria’s participation in the summit was vital for talks on the reconstruction of Syria and the return of refugees.

For now, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been sidelined over his role in the Syrian conflict, which led to the displacement of more than six million Syrians – over one million of whom are in Lebanon. The war in Syria, which started in March 2011 as peaceful protests against al-Assad, has since turned into a proxy war.

“Just like the summit in Beirut, it is anticipated that the participants will focus on protocol issues more than discussing the current crises in the Arab world,” Hamzeh al-Mustafa, a London-based Syrian researcher, told Al Jazeera.

This is for a number of reasons, including that, unlike the EU, the Arab League’s resolutions are non-binding, making the implementation of potential agreements reached during the summit extremely difficult.

And rather than taking independent positions, both blocs tend to “coordinate” with the United States on the issues slated for discussion, al-Mustafa noted.

Under US President Donald Trump’s administration, there has been an absence of a clear strategy in the Middle East. From the looming “deal of the century” peace plan for Palestine, to his unexpected announcement that he would be withdrawing US troops from Syria – Trump’s decisions have managed to overturn decades of US policy in the region.

Member states from both blocs oppose the US troops’ withdrawal from Syria, fearing a resurgence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) in the region and a continuation of the refugee crisis.

This is why the summit may also be a chance for leaders from the two blocs to “coordinate their stance” and “convince” the Trump administration to reverse its decision, al-Mustafa said.

This is especially significant since a major issue facing Europe is the potential return of ISIL fighters to the continent now that the armed group is on the brink of a defeat in Syria.

Trump’s threat to release at least 1,000 fighters captured by the US-backed Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria has worried European countries which, according to Kabalan, do not have a strategy to deal with their citizens who joined ISIL.

Ball in Arab League’s court

Experts agree there has been no Arab consensus on the issues being raised at the summit.

Zweiri said most Arab countries prefer to resolve their issues bilaterally with the Europeans directly.

“For the past 20 years, none of these summits or conferences actually led to any serious outcomes,” Zweiri told Al Jazeera.

“They’re insignificant,” he added.

Also citing Europe’s priorities as security and anti-migration, Zweiri said EU leaders are unlikely to take the lead to resolve these issues.

“They [Europeans] will definitely throw the ball to the Arab nations’ court to work and try to stabilise regional conflicts,” he said.

“The cost [of solving problems] is very expensive, and no party is willing to contribute economically to tackle these issues,” Zweiri said, adding the participating countries are unwilling to solve “actual problems”.

This is also because governments from the two bodies have already established security coordination, and have been exchanging information “for a long time”, Zweiri said.

Palestine issue

Also on the agenda is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Repeated attempts to revive the stalled peace process have been futile, especially since the Trump administration recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

The status of Jerusalem and illegal settlement expansion have been major sticking points in the negotiations.

Since Trump’s announcement in December 2016, Palestinian leaders have labelled the US a dishonest broker in the peace talks. Despite this, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner launched a Middle East tour on Sunday to promote the first part of the new plan, dubbed the “deal of the century”.

The Europeans are not the main players in this regard, Kabalan noted, adding that the bloc seems “content with this minor role”.

Nadia Hijab, director of the Palestinian policy network, Al Shabaka, said the question of Palestinian rights and Israeli violations “is buried under the anodyne rubric of the ‘Middle East peace process'”.

“[The Middle East process] has involved the much stronger party, Israel, imposing its illegal settlement agenda on the much weaker party, Palestine, with the EU and the international community behaving as though they were powerless to challenge Israel’s depredations,” Hijab told Al Jazeera.  

“The fact that there was no mention of the Palestinian question in the EU statement on the issue whereas the ‘situation’ in Yemen, Syria and Libya – all seen as directly threatening EU security – were highlighted by name indicates the focus of European concern,” she said.

Source: Al Jazeera