Migration and unrest in focus as first EU-Arab League summit kicks off

EU and Arab League leaders on Sunday started their first-ever summit in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh with the aim of enhancing co-operation on migration, terrorism and trade.

Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi opened the two-day talks with a call for tougher action against terrorism.

"The danger of terrorism has spread across the whole world like a pernicious plague," he told attendees. "Today we badly need to assert our co-operation against this danger and stand united against this plague, which cannot be justified under any name."

Egypt has seen a wave of deadly militant attacks since the army's 2013 ousting of the democratically elected but divisive Islamist president Mohammed Morsi following mass protests against his rule.

In his opening remarks, al-Sisi also suggested the EU and Arab countries would co-operate on what he called "safe" migration.

"Co-operation is necessary between the two regions to secure safe and legal migration in a way that will fulfil several joint interests," he said. "This should go hand in hand with combatting human trafficking as part combatting cross-border organised crime."

The topic of migration also featured in an address by Donald Tusk, the head of the European Council.

"We must work together – countries of origin, transit and destination in order to break the business model of smugglers and traffickers who lure people into dangerous journeys and feed modern-day slavery," Tusk said. He also called for closer cooperation between the EU and Arab countries, saying "there are objective reasons why we have to be closer – our neighbourhood is something real, which means that being closer is in fact not a choice but a must."

Following the opening ceremony of the summit, the attendees held a closed session on enhancing EU-Arab partnership and addressing global challenges.

The high-profile meeting of monarchs and heads of state and government comes as some Arab countries face economic and political crises and Europe sees a rise in anti-migration sentiment.

In recent months, Islamic State has suffered military setbacks in Iraq and Syria, virtually ending the militant group's self-styled "caliphate." Its military collapse has raised fears that fragments of the group will retaliate with attacks in Europe and the Middle East.

Europe's top diplomat Federica Mogherini, highlighted the importance of the summit but admitted there were disagreements between the sides. "I think this summit is in itself a deliverable: the fact that it happens and that we established this practice for the future," Mogherini said after arriving in Sharm el-Sheikh. "We will not agree on everything, as it is normal among friends and partners."

European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker meanwhile voiced concerns over the human rights scene in many Arab states. "We have to talk to everyone, but you have to talk openly, without over exaggerating the topic of human rights, but you should not underestimate it," he told reporters in the Red Sea resort.

The summit drew a strong attendance.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel flew into Sharm el-Sheikh shortly after the start of the event and later joined a group photo with other attendees. Two controversial Arab leaders were no-shows. Saudi Arabia's powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman stayed away, with his ageing father King Salman attending instead.

Many Western countries have kept their diplomatic distance from Mohammed since Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in Riyadh's consulate in Turkey in October. Khashoggi was a sharp critic of the heir apparent.

Mohammed's attendance would have put the Europeans in an awkward position as they try to strengthen cooperation with their Arab partners.

Another absentee is Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, against whom the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants on charges of war crimes. 

For weeks now, Al-Bashir has faced the biggest street protests against his regime since he seized power in 1989. His deputy Bakri Hassan is attending the meeting in Egypt on his behalf.

The streets of Sharm el-Sheikh have been decorated with billboards carrying logos of the EU and the Arab League amid tight security, with Egypt engaged in a campaign against Islamist militancy.    (dpa)