Leaders from the European Union and the Arab League are gathering in Egypt on Sunday for the first ever summit between the two entities, but internal divisions and Brexit threaten to overshadow it.
Twenty-four of the 28 EU leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, May and Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar are going. They will be joined by the EU Council President Donald Tusk and the bloc’s top diplomat Federica Mogherini.
France, Spain, Lithuania and Latvia will instead send foreign ministers.
On the Arab side, the guest list remains uncertain as divisions are rife.
The Saudi de-facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — shunned since the brutal killing of Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in October — and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir who is subject to a warrant from the International Criminal Court will not be going. The Saudi delegation is instead expected to be led by King Salman.
Qatar is sending low-level delegates. The country has been embroiled in a diplomatic war against Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain since 2017 after Riyadh accused it of backing extremist groups including the so-called Islamic State and the Muslim Brotherhood. Its relationship with Iran was also criticised.
This disunity among Arab peers often works to the European advantage prompting former Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said Arab nations needed to assert themselves.
“If the Arab side weakens itself, Europe will impose its agenda,” he said.
The two-day summit at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh aims to boost cooperation on a number of shared challenges including migration, security and trade and investment.
The official agenda, which officials struggled to settle on, will see leaders aim to boost cooperation on socio-economic development, trade and investment, energy security, climate change and migration.
The rationale being, according to a document from the EU, that the two neighbouring regions account for 12% of the global population with the Middle East experiencing strong population growth, which means that “the cross-regional opportunities and challenges are likely to increase.”
Pressing global issues including how to coordinate efforts to derail the root causes of terrorism and cut support to terrorist networks will also be discussed.
As will the regions’ open conflicts such as the situations in Syria, Libya and Yemen as well as the Middle East Peace Process.
For the EU, the aim is also to reaffirm its clout on the global stage, a source told Reuters.
“The goal is to start a dialogue with other world regions. By that the EU aims to counter Russia’s and China’s growing influence in these regions,” the source said.
But Brexit, a decidedly European issue and not on the official agenda, threatens to overshadow the summit as British Prime Minister Theresa May is hoping to lobby other EU leaders on the sidelines.
With just five weeks to go until the UK leaves the EU on March 29, May is hoping to clinch concessions from the EU to appease her parliamentarians who rejected the Withdrawal Agreement with a historic margin in January.