EU and Arab league leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, UK Prime Minister Theresa May, President of the European Council Donald Tusk, President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, Djibouti President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi attend a group photo during the first Arab-European Summit on 24 February 2019 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. [Dan Kitwood/Getty Images]

It is not that the European Union and the Arab League have never had a diplomatic relationship. Quite the reverse. Sparked by the so-called “Arab Spring”, a political and strategic dialogue has been developing between the EU and the League ever since 2011. As recently as 4 February 2019 a ministerial meeting brought together 10 EU and 15 Arab League foreign ministers in Brussels. In between meetings of senior officials, joint working groups have often gathered to discuss political and security matters of shared concern. As a result the EU and the League have a common position on a range of issues, including the two-state solution for the Israel-Palestinian dispute and support for a political transition in Syria. They also cooperate in attempting to solve the war in Yemen and the conflict in Libya.

No, what had never taken place was an Arab League-EU summit – and this was the diplomatic first that occurred on 22-24 February 2019, in Egypt’s Red Sea resort of Sharm-el-Sheik. Representatives from more than fifty countries, including the leaders of most of the European Union member states, met to discuss migration, terrorism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and other issues of common concern. Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, took time off from intensive Brexit negotiations to attend – doubtless seizing the opportunity for side discussions with other European leaders.

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The two-day gathering was seen in the region as an important first step towards further, and perhaps more intensive, Arab-European engagement in the future. The high-level representation, and the willingness to undertake serious interchanges on sensitive and pressing topics, suggest that both groups of countries acknowledge the need to work together in the face of increasingly complex problems.

What emerged from the two-day event, co-chaired by Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi?

First a determination to deepen Arab-European ties in order to enhance the stability, prosperity, and well-being of the two regions. Stronger regional cooperation was seen to be essential if issues such as migration were to be effectively managed. At the press conference following the summit, Tusk said: “On border control and the fight against irregular migration: we will scale up our joint efforts to prevent people smuggling, eradicate trafficking in human beings and combat those who exploit vulnerable people.”

Terrorism was another major topic to engage their attention. Both sides committed to collaborating more closely to address the root causes of terrorism, while continuing current joint efforts to combat terrorist fighters. They agreed also to encourage investment and sustainable growth by strengthening economic cooperation between the two regions.

When considering the endemic Israel-Palestine dispute, leaders reaffirmed their commitment to reaching a two-state solution. They also discussed possible ways of achieving political solutions in Syria, Libya and Yemen in line with relevant UN resolutions.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the summit was the commitment by those participating to “uphold all aspects of international human rights law”. Members of the European Union would find little difficulty in honouring this obligation. Most of the 22 member states of the Arab League have some way to go in this regard.

Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization dedicated to expanding freedom and democracy across the globe. Each year it produces a flagship report assessing the state of political rights and civil liberties country by country. The report, “Freedom in the World” has been described as “the best source available on the state of political and civil rights around the world.”

Under the category “Free” in the report for 2018, only one of the Arab League’s 22 member states is listed – Tunisia. Five are assessed as “Partly Free”, while no less than 15 are described as “Not Free”. Palestine, a League member, is not a sovereign state and was not included in the Freedom House report.

The League’s members are: Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.   The 5 states listed as “Partly Free” are Comoros, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon and Morocco.

“As this meeting concludes,” said Tusk, “…we must all work together to turn our words into action…”

Both parties considered this first high-level summit a success, and agreed to hold further Arab League-EU summits regularly, alternating the location between Arab and European states. The next is scheduled to take place in Brussels in 2022. What sort of progress will each party be able to report by then on the daunting list of problems they have identified?

By Neville Teller

Neville Teller’s latest book is “"Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020". He has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years, has published five books on the subject, and blogs at Born in London and a graduate of Oxford University, he is also a long-time dramatist, writer and abridger for BBC radio and for the UK audiobook industry. He was made an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2006 "for services to broadcasting and to drama."