Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel shakes hands with Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah (center) as Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (right) looks on during the first joint European Union and Arab League summit in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, on Sunday. Photo: AFP

European and Arab leaders met on Sunday in Egypt’s Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh to begin their first summit.

In his opening speech, the host, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, painted a “bleak” picture of a region ravaged by wars and terrorism as he appealed for stronger cooperation.

European Union members view the summit as a way to protect their traditional diplomatic, economic and security interests while China and Russia move to fill a vacuum left by the United States.

EU President Donald Tusk told those assembled that neighbors “should not leave it to powers far from our region,” apparently alluding to China and Russia.

Tusk acknowledged “there are differences between us” but said neighbors had more at stake than distant powers.

“We need to cooperate and not leave it to global powers far from our region,” the former Polish premier told leaders from about 40 countries.

He did not name those powers but an EU source confirmed he meant China and Russia. China is expanding its trade with the region and has established a military base in Djibouti.

Russia is militarily backing Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in his war against insurgents.

EU sources said the first EU-League of Arab States summit is all the more important as Washington “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 AFP.

The summit in the southern Sinai desert is heavily guarded by Egyptian security forces who are combating a deadly jihadist insurgency a short distance to the north.

The presence of such a large number of leaders shows “what brings together the two regions, Arab and European, exceeds immeasurably what divides them,” Sisi told those gathered.

Risks and challenges

The Egyptian leader called for the resolution of the decades-old Palestinian-Israeli conflict and more recent wars and conflicts in Libya, Yemen and Syria.

“The picture is, in fact, bleak at present,” said Sisi, who led the army’s overthrow of president Mohamed Morsi in 2013 following mass protests against the Islamist leader’s rule.

He called for Arab and EU economic cooperation and warned of “mounting risks and challenges” including terrorism and migration.

“Has not the time come to agree on a comprehensive approach on combating terrorism?” Sisi asked.

Tusk called on both Arabs and Europeans to “break the business model” of smugglers taking migrants to Europe.

European leaders first mentioned the Arab summit in Austria in September during efforts to agree on ways to address illegal migration, which has sharply divided the 28-nation bloc.

But checking migration is just part of Europe’s broader strategy to forge a new alliance with its southern neighbors.

A UN official warned that Europe’s failure to bridge divisions on migration “risks blocking all the other discussions” at the summit.

The EU has inked aid-for-cooperation agreements with Turkey and Libya’s UN-backed government in Tripoli, which has dramatically reduced the flow of migrants since the 2015 peak.

 – with reporting by Agence France-Presse

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