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Security and migration to top agenda at first ever EU-Arab League summit in Egypt

Egyptian opposition leaders had written to EU leaders to boycott event over increasing number of executions in Egypt

Leaders have gathered in Egypt for the first ever European Union-Arab League summit, which aims at stepping up cooperation on trade, security and migration while the EU-Brexit stalemate looms on the sidelines.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi hosted last-minute preparatory meetings with the European Union before he opened the two-day summit at 5pm (1500 GMT) on Sunday in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. 

The meeting comes despite increasing condemnation of the rising number of executions and human rights abuses taking place in Egypt.

Europeans view the summit, EU sources told the AFP news agency, 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.

The summit, in the southern Sinai desert, is heavily guarded by Egyptian security forces who are fighting armed groups a short distance to the north.

Climate change, migration, trade and investment are on Sunday's agenda, with conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Libya to be discussed on Monday.

Arab League hosts said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will also be raised.

Egypt death penalty appeal

On Sunday, MEE revealed EU officials have begun talks with counterparts in several Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt and Turkey, about proposed data-sharing deals that would allow Europol to exchange personal information about suspects with local law enforcement authorities.

The deals are being sought by the EU as part of efforts to bolster counter-terrorism policing across the continent despite concerns being raised about the human rights records of the countries by the bloc’s own data protection watchdog.

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Egyptian opposition leaders on Friday wrote to Federica Mogherini, the EU's senior diplomat, and other EU leaders to urge them to boycott the event, regarding the increasing number of executions in Egypt, which they said were set to become a weekly event.

Since the start of the year, Egypt has executed a number of prisoners convicted in cases in which several said they had been tortured into false confessions.

Hundreds more people have also been sentenced to death, in what anti-death penalty campaign group Reprieve has called a “full-blown human rights crisis”, since Sisi seized power in a coup in 2013.

New alliance

European leaders first mentioned the summit in Austria in September amid efforts to agree ways to curb the illegal migration that 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 neighbours.

Mogherini insists that the gathering in Egypt of around 40 heads of state and government is about much more than migration.

Donald Tusk, president of the European Council of EU member countries, met Sunday with Sisi to help set the agenda, EU sources said.

Most of the 24 European heads of state and government who have confirmed their attendance have already arrived in the Red Sea resort, they added.

British Prime Minister Theresa May was due to arrive later on Sunday.

Migration 'risks blocking all the other discussions'

Apart from Sisi, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and King Salman of Saudi Arabia will attend from the 22-member Arab League, based in Cairo.

Most of the other Arab leaders are due to attend except Syria's Bashar al-Assad, whose country was suspended from the Arab League over the civil war, and Sudan's Omar al-Bashir. 

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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 struck aid-for-cooperation agreements with Turkey and Libya's UN-backed government in Tripoli, which has sharply cut the number of migrants since a 2015 peak.

But the official said broader cooperation with the Arab League, which includes Libya, is limited without the EU being able to speak in one voice. 

Marc Pierini, a former EU ambassador to Tunisia and Libya, said the Arabs are also grappling with divisions since the Arab Spring revolutions in the last decade.

'No deal in the desert'

Meanwhile, an EU source said there will "be no deal in the desert" when asked if EU leaders would huddle together to explore ways to break the logjam over Britain's looming exit from the bloc on March 29.

Brussels has stood united against May's requests to reopen the November divorce agreement in order to help it pass the British parliament.

However, the issue is due to come up when Tusk holds a one-to-one meeting with May in Sharm el-Sheikh.

EU sources said the first EU-Arab summit is 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 AFP.

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