EU president and EU leaders to travel to Egypt for Tunisia-style migration deal

Egypt AP - Petros Karadjias
MAR 15, 2024 LISTEN
AP - Petros Karadjias

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will visit Cairo on Sunday, 17 March, accompanied by Greek, Belgian and Italian heads of government. The aim of the visit is to a multi-faced deal that includes attempts to curb migration flows into Europe. But critics have their doubts.

Ursula von der Leyen travels with the Prime Ministers of Italy, Belgium and Greece, Giorgia Meloni, Alexander De Croo and Kyriakos Mītsotakīs, to "to advance negotiations" with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi regarding the signing of an EU-Egypt Strategic Partnership.

The groundwork for visit was laid out in Brussels during the 10th Association Council meeting between the two sides in January. Then, EU Commissioner for Enlargement, Oliver Várhelyi, expressed optimism that the agreement would be finalised by the end of February.

The collaborative approach mirrors the Team Europe strategy employed last summer, when Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte joined von der Leyen and Meloni in persuading Tunisian President Kais Saied to sign the EU-Tunisia Memorandum of Understanding [MoU.]

However, that deal was blasted by international human rights organisations and some MEPs who criticised Brussels for forming an anti-migration partnership with Tunisian President Kais Saied's increasingly authoritarian regime.

At the time, European Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly remarked that "where fundamental rights are not respected, there cannot be good administration," saying that "von der Leyen's European Commission has some explaining to do. 

"Did the Commission carry out a human rights impact assessment of the MoU before its conclusion and consider possible measures to mitigate risks of human rights violations?," the ombudsman asked, in a letter to von der Leyen.

In anintial reply, the Commission answered that it will "continue to monitor the respect for human rights through its financing cooperation in Tunisia through the applicable rules and procedures under the NDICI-Global instrument and other EU rules."

According to the website of the EU ombudsman, the inquiriy into EU practices regarding the respect of human rights in the deal with Tunisia is still "ongoing." 

9 million migrants

Meanwhile, the EU-Egypt partnership will be structured around six key areas of "mutual interest," as outlined by Egypt's foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, on January 23. They include political relations, economic stability, investment and trade, migration and mobility, security and demography, and notably, energy cooperation.

And while the memorandum with Tunisia focuses on border management and migration cooperation, the dealwith Egypt will be broader.

The country currently hosts a staggering 9 million migrants, causing immediate pressure on the economic environment of the country.

The EU acknowledges Egypt's "significant potential" in green electricity, which Brussels is particularly interested in alongside the country's vast energy resources, including gas and renewable energy.

According to Victoria Rietig, Head of the Migration Program of the German Council of Foreign Relations, writing on X, the EU is "set to give 7.4bn euros to invest in Egypt's economy, energy sector, and migration and border management.

As in the agreement with Tunisia of  23 July, migration is one element among others.

"While 7.4 billion euros is a lot," she says, "it's peanuts compared to another investment Egypt received recently: 35 billion from the UAE for a huge infrastructure project along the Mediterranean coastline. An 8 billion loan from the IMF, also agreed this month, comes on top of all that.

Authoritarian system

But some argue, she says, that since "Egypt is an authoritarian system, abuses human rights, oppresses its people, and treats migrants poorly, Europe should not partner with el-Sisi for migrant control deals.

"Why make us dependent on such a regime?
"Egypt is an authoritarian system, abuses human rights, oppresses its people, and treats migrants poorly. Europe should not partner with El-Sisi for migrant control deals, some argue. Still cooperation may be interesting because Cairo is effective.

"Few boats leave the Egyptian coast irregularly. The EU and Egypt have expanded their migration cooperation successively in recent years."

On top of that the EU "wants a stable Egypt in an unstable region. The alternative to engaging financially risks leaving even bigger geopolitical openings for Gulf countries, Russia, and China." 

Moreover, Egypt has become a "regional refugee host in its own right. There are half a million refugees and asylum seekers currently registered in the country, according to UNHCR data, most of them from Sudan (280k) and Syria (155k)," she says.

Riesing argues that the quality of the agreement all "depends on the implementation. It should include human rights safeguards in Egypt's border management.

Funds are, a least in part,  go to civil society and international organisations that provide refugee and migrant services in Egypt (instead of directly to the regime)," she says. 

(with newswires)