Arab and European states on Sunday sought common ground on security threats and regional crises, including Yemen, Syria and Libya at their first joint summit held in Egypt’s Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
Officials said the summit was neither about Brexit — which British Prime Minister Theresa May was discussing with other leaders on the sidelines — nor primarily about migration, an issue that has consumed European political debate since a surge in arrivals in 2015.
European Council President Donald Tusk urged cooperation in his opening address to leaders from about 40 nations, adding that neighbors “should not leave it to powers far from our region,” alluding to China and Russia.
EU sources said the first EU-Arab summit was all the more important as the US “disengages” from the region while Russia and China make inroads.
“We don’t want to see this vacuum soaked up by Russia and China,” one of the sources told Agence France-Presse.
“The meeting is the message,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told reporters, summing up the largely symbolic nature of the summit.
“I hope that the summit manages to focus on our partnership when it comes to economic relations, when it comes to our common work, for instance, on Palestine ... revitalizing the two state solution,” EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini told reporters.
“But also a common approach I hope, on the conflict on Syria, on the conflict in Yemen to try to have a full implementation of the Stockholm agreements, and common work on Libya,” she said.
The UN has been trying to salvage a truce agreed at peace talks in Stockholm in December last year between Houthi rebels in Yemen and the Saudi-backed government.
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman emphasized the importance of a political solution in Yemen, while calling the Iranian-backed Houthis terrorists.
“We affirm the importance of international efforts to support Yemeni legitimacy and bring the revolutionary terrorist Houthi militias supported by Iran to submit to the international community,” the king told the summit.
Houthis say they seized power to counter corruption and deny receiving material support from Iran.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, who hosted the meeting, called for resolving the decades-old Palestinian-Israeli conflict and settling more recent wars and conflicts in Libya, Yemen and Syria.
“The picture is in fact bleak at present” he said as he called for Arab and EU economic cooperation and warned of “mounting risks and challenges,” including terrorism and migration.
He called for a broad plan to combat terrorism that would deprive extremists of funding “include a strict security offensive to counter the terrorist organizations and other elements of terrorism. And there should also be an effective ideological offensive against their ideological platforms.”
One issue dividing the Arab League is the possible readmission of Syria, suspended in 2011 over its crackdown on protesters at the start of the civil war.
Arab states still have differences on the issue, although the trend was toward backing Syria’s return and giving Arab states a “foothold” in dealing with the Syria file, Sudanese Permanent Representative to the League Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem said.
Most of the leaders of the 22-member Arab League attended, except for Syrian President Bashir al-Assad, whose country was suspended from the league over its civil war, and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is grappling with protests at home.
Absent on the EU side were the leaders of France, Spain, Latvia and Lithuania.
Additional reporting by AFP and AP
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