By Agence France-Presse
European Union and Arab leaders will meet in Egypt in late February for their first summit as part of efforts to forge a new European-African alliance and fight migrant smuggling, officials said Thursday.
European leaders first mentioned the summit in Austria last month as they vowed to intensify talks with Egypt and other North African countries to curb illegal migration.
“The European Council welcomes the holding of the forthcoming first summit between the 28 EU Member States and the League of Arab States, hosted by Egypt on 24-25 February 2019,” the council of EU leaders said after a summit in Brussels.
The Cairo-based Arab League includes North African countries Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco as well as those in the Middle East and Gulf.
EU officials insisted the summit was about more than just migration, but part of a broader push to build closer ties with Africa outlined by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in September.
“It is now much more than about migration and fighting traffickers,” an EU official told reporters.
Juncker urged the EU to strike a “new alliance” with Africa that would create millions of jobs and include a free trade deal.
The Commission, the executive arm of the 28-nation EU, hopes the strategy will both showcase its international influence and help stem the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean.
‘Dangerously toxic’ debate
The EU also wants to boost development in sub-Saharan Africa to ease the poverty that often drives migration.
Brussels has previously struck cooperation deals with both Turkey and Libya, whose coast guard officers are trained by the Europeans to stop migrant sea crossings — despite concerns about conditions in Libyan detention centers.
The deals with the two gateway countries have helped to cut migration to Europe sharply since a 2015 peak, but the bloc wants to expand work with all north African countries.
The leaders called for “strengthening cooperation with countries of origin and transit, particularly in North Africa,” according to the summit’s published conclusions.
“Work with third countries on investigating, apprehending and prosecuting smugglers and traffickers should be intensified,” it said.
EU officials say Egypt has set a high bar in fighting traffickers and smugglers, which could be emulated by other North African countries.
The EU is increasingly focused on bolstering its external borders amid longstanding divisions over redistributing asylum-seekers who make it to Italian and other European shores.
But it is still confronted with the refusal of Hungary and other former communist eastern countries to admit migrants, particularly from Muslim countries.
And Italy’s populist government has this year turned away migrant rescue ships in a bid to force fellow EU countries to share responsibility for them.
The United Nations refugee and migration agencies, the UNHCR and IOM, had this week urged EU leaders to take steps to ensure responsiblities are shared.
They said the debate was so “dangerously toxic” in some countries that it was harder to find common solutions.
Even though fewer people were arriving in Europe, the two agencies said, the rate of people dying in the Mediterranean was increasing. More than 1,700 lives have been lost since January.