Opening the first Arab League-European Union summit in Egypt, president Abdel Fattah El Sisi told leaders of more than 40 countries that “what bring together the two regions, Arab and European, exceeds immeasurably what divides them.” On that, certainly, he is right. There are immense shared tensions: protests just this week on the streets of France and Sudan; fears in both blocs about the extent of Russian and Chinese influence; and tensions between key states, as France this month recalled its ambassador to Italy, and the Qatar dispute continues.
Yet what has brought them together at this moment is something far larger, something that perhaps is best described as a faltering sense of collective destiny.
Neither the EU nor the Arab League really knows where it is going. There are hard questions for both and not only can the leaders of the regions not agree on the answers; they can’t even agree where to find them.
For the European Union, these days – indeed these years – are exercises in damage limitation.
When the United Kingdom first voted to leave the union in 2016, there was, in some quarters, a sense of invigoration, a belief that the immense challenges that the EU faced over its legitimacy could be solved by renewed integration. The year after the vote, European Commission head Jean-Claude Junker – who was in Sharm El Sheikh this week – urged the EU to move faster to greater integration. “Let’s set sail and catch the wind,” he declared.
That did not happen; the wind died down and inertia set in. The UK leaving, combined with the election of Donald Trump, who has no great love for the institutions of the EU, plus a resurgent Russia, has created a sense of drift. Migration remains incredibly divisive in every single EU state. Nationalism and far-right political parties are rising. The idea of ever-closer union is a fantasy, for now. The EU is just barely holding it together.
For the Arab world, too, there are deep divisions. The wars in Syria, Yemen and Libya. Tensions with Iran and Israel. The Saudi-led boycott of Qatar.
The Arab League shows these divisions starkly. Lacking a heavyweight “center of gravity,” the League tends to take the path of least resistance. Its most notable recent political stance was expelling Syria – and this week it appeared to be preparing to allow Damascus back.
That is a problem because problems in the region tend to be resolved piecemeal. There’s no coherent bloc, no identifiable center, in the way that, for example, Germany and France have worked hard to maintain unity at the heart of the EU.
The piecemeal approach continues from the European side. Europe’s focus on the region flits: focusing on Egypt, Libya and Turkey because of the migration crisis; then on the Gulf because of Iran; then on Syria because of the war.
Despite Donald Tusk, the head of the European Council, saying at the summit, “there are objective reasons why we have to be closer; our neighborhood is something real,” there is in fact no sense among the Europeans of a cohesive Middle East sharing common interests with the EU. The idea of one region hasn’t taken root in European capitals.
If neither side is quite sure where, as a group, they are going, they are also uncertain with whom they should be allied. The final 17-point summit declaration on Tuesday was long on warm words of a “rich history of cultural exchange” but short on new policies. If the summit leaders were vague, that is because neither side really believes the other side can deliver, or trusts them all that much.
The Arabs are well-aware that the Europeans are divided, and that the US, for all the capriciousness of the current president, is much more cohesive.
The Europeans, too, are wary of the Middle East, where just three neighboring countries (Iraq, Syria and Israel) can have such different allegiances.
It should be no surprise that the most significant political agreements of recent years with the three most populous Middle Eastern countries (Egypt, Turkey and Iran) have all centered on the relatively discrete and verifiable issues of migration and nuclear proliferation. The trust required for more widespread agreements – on free trade, for example, or of intelligence material – doesn’t exist yet.
Yet, divided as they are, both sides also face harsher and more cohesive adversaries: China, Russia and the US. All are political, if not military, adversaries, in that they each have their own particular goals and are willing to achieve them at the expense of some Arab and European countries. It is certainly they to whom Tusk was referring when he told the summit the two blocs “needed to cooperate and not leave it to global powers far from our region.”
Two complex regions, both susceptible to division, putting on a brief show of unity in the Egyptian sunshine. The Arabs and the Europeans are trying to unite around each other because they fear both outsiders and insiders dividing them.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.