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By Michael Peel – Financial Times

For the EU, the timing could hardly have been worse. Egypt’s parliament this month backed a proposal to extend President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s increasingly authoritarian rule until as far as 2034, a power grab that has shaken the country. If approved, the move would extend the authority of the military and Mr Sisi, whom critics brand an autocrat responsible for curbing freedoms and jailing dissenters.

Yet on Sunday the former general is expected to welcome more than 20 European leaders to the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh for the inaugural EU-Arab League summit designed to tighten bonds between the two sides.

European diplomats are trying to put a brave face on it. “It’s not as if Sisi is Mandela,” says one conscious of the embarrassment for the EU in this recalibration of its foreign policy. But another, with a more sceptical approach to the Brussels-based bloc’s embrace of Mr Sisi, puts it more bluntly: “It looks like he thinks he can get away with it.”

The summit — an EU-inspired event to be attended by Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, plus the Italian and British prime ministers, Giuseppe Conte and Theresa May — has emerged as an emblem of what might be called the “EU’s strongman bargain”. The bloc’s chronic problems and internal feuds, notably over migration, have led to a small revolution in its willingness to co-operate with authoritarian rulers such as Mr Sisi, even when that lays it open to charges of hypocrisy and lending these regimes legitimacy.

The arm’s-length relationships that the bloc — if not all member states — had with hardline leaders such as Hosni Mubarak, who ruled Egypt for 30 years before he was overthrown in 2011, have given way to a keener embrace.

Critics say this sits uncomfortably with both the EU’s stated position as a promoter of human rights — and its sense of itself as a more palatable western alternative to US president Donald Trump. While Mr Trump has been unapologetic and sometimes vocal in his backing of autocrats, Europe has discreetly moved beyond its traditional discomfort at dealing with the likes of the Gulf monarchies, into unapologetic relations with a wide range of authoritarian states.

“The EU is trying to find a more realistic foreign policy than it has in the past. [But it is] difficult for the Europeans to admit it and recognise it” – Pierre Vimont” – Carnegie Europe

HA Hellyer, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute in London, says EU engagement has already helped the Sisi government to improve its international standing after the criticism following the popularly-backed 2013 coup that brought him to power.

“Egypt wants to affirm that it’s well thought of in the world,” Mr Hellyer says, pointing to how Cairo has presented itself as a good partner on immigration management, antiterrorism and regional stability. “It’s an easy sell to people in Europe who want to buy.”

Europe’s dilemma has been magnified by the changing global geopolitical landscape, with a number of countries sliding into full-blown dictatorship or existing in a grey zone of hardline rule cloaked in elections of varying credibility — from Turkey to Thailand.

“Realpolitik means that you have to talk in a world of craziness with the crazy people and the totalitarian people,” says an EU member-state diplomat. “You cannot just live on your tiny island and say you are not concerned.”

The calls for a more pragmatic approach to the EU’s international engagement are becoming more public. The bloc needs a “reality check” and to understand that in an “insecure, multipolar world, ‘power’ is not a dirty word”, said Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister.

“Sometimes you have to dance with whoever’s on the dance floor,” Mr Rutte told an audience in Zurich earlier in February. “We don’t always have a choice.”

This hardening of attitudes has sparked questions about whether such an approach is sustainable.

Pierre Vimont, a veteran French envoy who was the first executive secretary-general of the EU’s diplomatic service between 2010 and 2015, sees in the bloc’s actions the beginning of a doctrine of “principled pragmatism” first pledged in 2016. This has created potential conflicts with the commitments to human rights that were central to the EU’s identity when it emerged from the ruins of the second world war — and are still a strong focus of member countries such as Sweden today.

“The EU is trying to find a more realistic foreign policy than it had in the past,” says Mr Vimont, now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Europe think-tank. “What is somewhat difficult for the Europeans is to admit it and recognise it.”

The Sharm el-Sheikh gathering has already thrown up several diplomatic hurdles for the Europeans. Dictatorships, absolute monarchies and elective autocracies feature prominently in the 22-member Arab League. Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, who is under International Criminal Court indictment for alleged genocide, is expected to stay away. European diplomats will be relieved that the same goes for President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, after speculation this year that his war-torn country’s more than seven-year suspension from the League might end soon.

EU diplomats say they have also sought and received assurances that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will not have too high-profile a role and that King Salman may lead the Saudi delegation.

“Realpolitik means that you have to talk in a world of craziness with the crazy people and the totalitarian people” – EU member-state diplomat

The kingdom sparked outrage after government agents murdered the journalist Jamal Khashoggi at its consulate in Istanbul last year, in what Riyadh said was a rogue operation. Mr Trump later appalled many western allies with what they saw as a public apology for the Saudi government and the crown prince — though the EU has also trodden lightly over the case at a collective level.

At the heart of the summit’s agenda is migration, which has driven EU interest in Egypt and the wider region over the past six months. The rise of European anti-immigrant parties has intensified the bloc’s crisis over those who want to come to its shores, even though numbers of migrant arrivals are a fraction of their 2015 and 2016 highs. Donald Tusk, European Council president, met Mr Sisi in Cairo and New York last year, while the Egyptian leader made an official visit in December to Austria, then holder of the EU’s rotating presidency.

The overtures have yielded few tangible results for the EU so far. Cairo has shown little interest in satisfying two main European desires, that Egypt take in rescued Mediterranean migrants and extends coastguard patrols along the north African shoreline.

The EU’s engagement with the Sisi regime highlights how the bloc has moved beyond a post-Arab spring preoccupation with promoting democracy in the Middle East, says Kristina Kausch, senior fellow at the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund of the US, a think-tank. Now the Europeans look at the region largely through the prism of migration and the importance of supporting supposedly secure governments that will prevent migrants from leaving.

“I don’t think [it is the case that] the Europeans don’t care about human rights,” Ms Kausch says. “They just care more about other things — in this case, stability on their doorstep.”

Earlier European flirtations with Middle East authoritarians offer some cautionary tales. In late 2010, the EU offered an initial €50m for anti-migration and migrant rights efforts in Libya, whose leader Muammer Gaddafi had demanded €5bn. Syria’s Mr Assad, a British-educated eye doctor, was feted as a reformer and awarded the Légion d’Honneur by France. By 2011, Gaddafi would be bombed by Nato and Mr Assad condemned by the EU as Syria slid into civil war.

Old style EU diplomacy was largely led by individual member states — often the former colonial power such as Italy in Libya. This latest European tryst with autocrats is increasingly bloc-led.

A defining moment was the March 2016 migration deal with Turkey. Under the accord, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed to take back people who travelled irregularly from its jurisdiction to the Greek islands. So far, €6bn have been paid or promised to Turkey under an agreement the EU sees as helping to stop an influx of almost 2.5m first-time claims for asylum in the bloc during 2015 and 2016. The accord has survived rifts with Mr Erdogan in other areas, including the jailing of EU nationals, and further delays to discussions of Turkey’s accession to the EU.

Previously the bloc was able to put principles over pragmatism because it never felt there was so much to lose. But the migration influx rammed home for EU and national leaders that they had shared borders — and thus needed a harder-edged common foreign policy.

“Having to deal with autocrats is going to be daily bread and butter,” says an EU official who works closely with several authoritarian states. “Then you have a choice. Do you not deal with them? In which case you suddenly run out of friends to deal with.”

The Turkey deal and the EU’s wider migration crackdown have kept people away from Europe — at a price to its reputation. Thousands of migrants have been stuck in severely overcrowded camps in the Greek islands. In post-civil war Libya, where two governments vie for power and militias roam the land, the EU has come under attack over severe abuses reported in detention centres for migrants intercepted by the country’s EU-trained coastguard.

Officials acknowledge that the various controversies over EU efforts on migration have undermined its international public advocacy of human rights.

But some observers see the recent friction between rhetoric and deed on migration as part of a wider pattern of EU foreign policy inconsistency on autocratic states. It has pulled back from action against some countries that have a wider strategic importance.

In 2016, it lifted sanctions against President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, the country sandwiched between the EU and Russia. With more than two decades of repressive rule, critics had branded him “Europe’s last dictator” — at least until the rise of elected but autocratic governments in the likes of Hungary and Poland.

In 2017, EU ministers lifted longstanding restrictions on political contacts with the military junta in Thailand, which is close to both western powers and China. The European bloc said it also wanted to explore if a trade agreement with the south-east Asian manufacturing hub could be resumed.

At the same time, Brussels has threatened an unprecedented suspension of trade preferences against Myanmar and Cambodia, two of Asia’s poorest countries. The moves were a reaction against the Myanmar military’s bloody crackdown against the Muslim Rohingya and the clampdown on opposition by Hun Sen, Cambodia’s veteran premier.

“In a way, it’s probably easier for the EU to be tough on strongmen in small countries,” says one member state diplomat. “But strongmen in more important countries — we have to find a way of engaging with them.”

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Such apparent double standards make the EU’s global projection as a guardian of human rights hollow, say critics. In many parts of the world, it feeds a deeper sense of Europe as a continent whose influential western members have failed to factor in their histories as colonisers and oppressors.

If one faction of European diplomats feels unhappy, or at least ambivalent, about the new strongman bargain, others argue that it is not only necessary but even honourable. It is preferable to try to modulate behaviour and agitate on human rights — even at the risk of accusations of hypocrisy.

Having to deal with autocrats is going to be daily bread and butter. [If] you do not deal with them, you suddenly run out of friends to deal with EU official

“I think it’s better to pontificate and hold yourself to high standards,” says one senior foreign policy official. “Even if it would be politically smarter to keep your mouth shut.”

It was to Sharm el-Sheikh that Mr Mubarak, Egypt’s president of almost three decades, retreated in early 2011 after a popular uprising toppled him. Elections the following year were followed by a turbulent 12 months of Muslim Brotherhood rule and the military coup that brought Mr Sisi to power.

Since then, the EU has followed a trajectory that places more emphasis on preserving the geopolitical balance as it is and less on the one it would like to see. The Summit will be a further test of how far it is prepared to fit in with what one EU diplomat describes pessimistically as a “race to the bottom [of the] world”.

“Europe has entirely lost faith in its ability to transform even its own neighbourhood,” says Asli Aydıntasbas, a senior fellow and Turkey specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations, referring to the rise of autocrats both in the EU and across the Mediterranean. “There is this readiness to shrug shoulders and say: ‘what are we going to do?’”


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