The recent EU-Arab League summit produced a nice group photo. Sadly, it fell short of its potential. The summit was held at the Egyptian resort city of Sharm El-Sheikh in late February, bringing together the highest powerbrokers from Egypt’s neighbouring regions. There were plenty of glowing tributes at the end of the meeting, as well as pledges to enhance prosperity and pursue solutions to common challenges. The participants committed to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—though that’s nothing new; both sides have expressed this position before, though neither has explained how it can be delivered. The Sharm El-Sheikh summit also yielded strong words on the severe crises in Syria and Yemen, but nothing more concrete than that.
Behind the PR fluff, the meeting was a missed opportunity on all sides, particularly for the EU. The union has spent four years grappling with the fallout from the Arab Spring; while the refugee crisis is under some sort of control and Isis is in its death throes, the summit could have addressed longer-term priorities to stabilise both regions.
Take trade. At Sharm, the EU could have pushed long-term strategies to benefit both sides of the Mediterranean. It could have pledged assistance to the Arab states to prevent further political convulsions and manage the consequences of previous crises.
Brussels has long talked about providing this kind of assistance but has so far failed to match words with actions. It’s pledged to help the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) states achieve economic reform since a Euro-Arab conclave way back in 1995. Yet negotiations over free trade deals with Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt remain deadlocked, and European lenders have invested only a tiny fraction of their wealth in the region. In Morocco, the European Investment Bank provided just €3.8 billion in the decade to 2017 – less than one per cent of total assets.
At the summit, European leaders could have reactivated the negotiations and agreed new investment, incentivising economic diversification among the MENA nations. This would have been well received in a region that is blighted by chronic under-employment and is even less stable than it was in the mid-nineties. But beyond a commitment to “stimulate cooperation”, it’s hard to pinpoint anything solid on offer from the EU.
The Sharm delegates agreed to work together to fight human trafficking, but there were no clear pledges from the EU to share the migration burden more fairly. Despite frenzied coverage of the migrant crisis in Europe, most Middle Eastern refugees have actually remained in the Arab world. This is taking a toll on the North African states, which are buckling under their itinerant populations.
Once again, the EU’s activities have fallen short. Last year, Brussels announced programs worth €90 million to control and protect migrants in North African states. If you consider that just days before Brussels pledged €16 billion for its space program, it’s little wonder that countries like Egypt think Europe can take more of the slack.
Some of the Arab world’s problems stem from internal turmoil, but even in these cases, the EU can do more to help. For example, the summit highlighted the ongoing standoff between Qatar and its Gulf neighbours, who have blockaded the emirate since June 2017 over charges – which Doha denies – that it supports extremism. In a significant breach of diplomatic protocol, the Egyptian government reportedly sent Qatar’s official invitation to the Greek Embassy in Doha rather than to Qatar’s permanent representative to the Arab League.
Remarkably, Qatar has turned the blockade to its advantage, using it as a stimulus to diversify its economy beyond its vast liquefied natural gas reserves and further develop sectors such as food, medicine and textiles. It has sought to develop new international partnerships away from the Gulf, with its sovereign wealth fund acquiring a stake in Russia’s Rosneft and the country entering a strategic dialogue deal with France to cooperate on economic, energy and security matters. Commerce has increased with Turkey and Iran, while the country’s trade surplus now exceeds $50 billion and the IMF has predicted economic growth of over 3% this year.
The Emirate’s dynamism and resilience is good for its EU partners, but they can do much more to help—not to mention that greater assistance would be to the strong advantage of the European bloc. The blockade is causing severe damage, not just on the economic level. Prior to the boycott, the Gulf Cooperation Council provided a bulwark against regional security threats, pooling resources to fight terrorism and maintain a united front against Iran. Now that alliance lies in tatters.
It’s in everyone’s interests for this squabble to be resolved. Yet as some Qatari officials note, Brussels has done little to oppose the boycott, bar offering some watery encouragement to “resolve differences”. In Sharm, EU leaders had a platform to make amends. With Riyadh looking to cleanse its image after Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, delegates might have found King Salman receptive had they pressured him to drop the boycott. They let the chance slip by – again.
Perhaps the coming years will be more productive for EU-Arab League relations. Indeed, the two sides have agreed to meet again in 2022. Maybe Sharm was a necessary exercise: a step towards something more tangible. But at a time when the EU has so much at stake in the Middle East, photos and platitudes just aren’t good enough.
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