EU-Arab League Summit: a symbolic step to strengthen regional cooperation

The European Union and the League of Arab States (LAS) held their first ever summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt on 24-25 February 2019. Leaders from both sides agreed to strengthen their partnership and to hold EU-LAS summits regularly in the future, in order to address common challenges. Although there have been political challenges recently both within the EU and with certain Arab countries, the summit can be considered as a first step establishing a dialogue at a new level between the two organisations.

The EU-League of Arab States Summit brought together for the first time heads of state or government of countries from both sides. The purpose of the summit was to strengthen the regional cooperation by addressing common challenges such as security, migration and the situation in the region as well as to increase trade and investment.
The expectations for results of the summit were not particularly high prior to the meeting, partly due to the internal disagreements within the EU on migration issues as demonstrated in the EU-LAS ministerial meeting earlier in February. Furthermore, the EU’s relations with certain Arabic countries had lately grown more complicated as a result of recent human rights violations.
However, both sides considered the summit successful according to their public statements and agreed that the next EU-LAS summit will take place in Brussels in 2022.

Enhancing Stability, Prosperity and Well-being

In the course of the summit, leaders of the EU and the League of Arab States committed to strengthen their partnership and adopted a joint declaration reaffirming the mutual efforts in certain areas of cooperation.
Essentially, the parties agreed in a general level to enhance the stability, prosperity and well-being of the two regions as well as to strengthen cooperation towards security, conflict resolution and socio-economic development. To this end, leaders agreed to work in a closer collaboration also to combat terrorism.
Moreover, both sides stated their commitment to defend multilateralism and rules-based trading system while increasing cooperation also with the UN and the African Union. It was further agreed to boost economic cooperation and to encourage investment and sustainable growth.
In addition to reaffirming their commitment to strengthening cooperation, leaders discussed the recent developments in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, particularly in Syria, Libya and Yemen and with regard to the Middle East Peace Process. According to the joint declaration, achieving peace requires reaching political solutions to regional crises in accordance with international law.

Internal Disagreements within the EU

Prior to the summit, the EU and the LAS held a ministerial meeting in Brussels to prepare for the summit and to discuss areas of cooperation. The meeting did not, however, result in a joint statement as the government of Hungary objected any reference to migration. As a result, the EU’s ability to show unity in migration issues was questioned.
The joint declaration of the EU-LAS summit, on the other hand, mentions the commitment of the parties to tackling common challenges such as “the phenomenon of migration”. It is further stated that both sides will be “inspired by Valletta principles; in accordance with the international law; the upholding of all aspects of international human rights law — strengthening of the fight against irregular migration and scaling up our joint efforts in preventing and fighting migrants’ smuggling”. Notably, the declaration does not include any reference to the UN Global Compact for Migration that proved politically controversial among the EU member states at the end of last year.
Migration has, indeed, caused internal disagreements within the EU and become a politically challenging subject, not least with the EU elections approaching. However, at the same time migration remains an issue of a particularly high interest to the Union and there is a common will to reduce irregular migration into the EU.
Furthermore, a vast majority of migrants is coming from the MENA region into Europe. Therefore, it would be of a great importance for the EU to show unity in the matter and to be able to address the phenomenon as well as its social and economic root causes in cooperation with the third countries concerned – such as the LAS.

EU’s Complicated Relations with Certain Arab Countries

Since the EU-LAS summit was agreed on last autumn, new political issues have emerged also between the EU and some Arab countries, particularly with regard to human rights.
After Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in Riyadh’s consulate in Turkey last October, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has become a controversial partner to Western countries. Eventually, the Crown Prince did not attend the EU-LAS Summit while his father King Salman participated instead.
Another Arab leader whose attendance would have put the EU in an awkward position is the Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir due to the fact that the International Criminal Court has issued arrest warrants against him on war crimes. Al-Bashir did not attend the summit either.
Additionally, the summit host Egypt has been criticised for human rights violations such as the execution of nine people a few days before the summit. Earlier this month, the Egyptian parliament also approved a proposal to extend presidential terms.
In general, human rights have remained a delicate matter for the EU in its external relations. Although the EU-LAS Summit served primarily as a ceremonial step towards closer regional cooperation, there has been pressure on the EU to not ignore the recent severe human rights violations.
The EU-LAS joint declaration ended up including a careful reference to human rights in a general level by stating that threats to peace and security require “concerted efforts in accordance with international law, including international human rights law”. It is further acknowledged that peace and security as well as human rights and economic and social development are “mutually reinforcing”.

Establishment of a Dialogue at a New Level

As was largely expected prior to the summit, the high-level meeting between the two organisations did not result in any new, ground-breaking commitments. In practice, the EU has already maintained a long tradition of close relations with many countries from the MENA region. Also with the League of Arab States, the EU has held before biennial ministerial meetings as well as annual meetings between the EU Political and Security Committee and the LAS Permanent Representatives.
Nevertheless, the summit can be considered to have at least symbolical significance as a formal step towards closer European-Arab ties. The summit, unlike the preceding ministerial meeting, resulted in a joint declaration and established a regular dialogue at a new – the highest – level between the two regional organisations. Essentially, the declaration acknowledges the need for further cooperation in different fields and established a new political arena for it.
Furthermore, it is in the interest of the EU to seek an active role in the neighbouring region. As the President Donald Tusk tweeted, the two regions share common challenges and interests and need to cooperate instead of leaving it “to global powers far from our region”. To achieve that goal the EU needs to reach an open dialogue internally and externally.
TEXT Suvi Moilanen
PICTURE European Commission / Audiovisual Services

The author has a Master’s degree in European Law and has a particular interest in human rights issues and the EU external relations.