29th Feb 2024

EU proclaims new 'golden age' in relations with Egypt

  • From left to right: Egypt's foreign minister Sameh Shoukry, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, and EU neighbourhood commissioner Oliver Varhelyi (Photo: European Union, 2024)
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The EU has entered a "golden age" of relations with Egypt, according to the EU's neighbourhood commissioner Olivér Várhelyi — as it deepens cooperation with a repressive state known for widespread human rights abuses.

"We have laid the foundations of the new phase of our partnership, the deep and comprehensive partnership that we hope to sign very, very quickly with Egypt," Várhelyi said on Tuesday (23 January).

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His comment comes in the wake of a similar controversial deal signed with Tunisia last summer, whose president seized power in a self-declared coup in 2021.

But whereas Tunisia is being asked to stop people fleeing on boats towards Europe, the EU commission is spooked by some nine million refugees hosted in Egypt plus a war in Sudan that has displaced millions towards the country.

Sameh Hassan Shoukry, Egypt's minister of foreign affairs, said in a press conference alongside Várhelyi, that their EU-Egypt renewed cooperation spans counter-terrorism and irregular migration.

Várhelyi's new golden age also comes with €9bn in investments for Egypt, covering everything from jobs, food, water and energy.

Just under €6bn has already been mobilised since 2021 as Cairo gains prominence given its wider role in weaning Europe off Russian energy supplies and Israel's war in the Gaza Strip.

Várhelyi said €50m is already being deployed to help Egypt host refugees, noting that other big investments on border management are also paying off with a shipment of patrol boats from France.

Mass expulsions continue in Tunisia

And he praised the Tunisia deal signed last summer, claiming "it works perfectly well" despite simultaneous statements by the European Commission on Tuesday that people are still being stranded in the desert and left to die.

This includes the bodies of a mother and her six-year old daughter, holding each other in a final embrace, before dying of thirst. The pair, along with others, had been taken into the desert last year reportedly by Tunisian authorities.

Civil society groups say at least 28 people have died between July and August on the Libyan border with Tunisia.

"I can't say that this practice has stopped. So this is of course, very concerning," Ylva Johansson, the EU's home affairs commissioner, told MEPs in the civil liberties committee.

But Johansson also praised the Tunisia deal, noting that EU funds for migration were going primarily towards international aid organisations like the UN refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), as well as equipment and training of the Tunisian coast guard.

And she said Tunisia had also arrested some 750 smugglers in Sfax, a port city, amid a sharp decrease in the number of migrant boat embarkations towards Italy.

Winter weather and sea conditions may also be factor in the lower embarkations, she also acknowledged.

But for Amnesty International the two deals with Egypt and Tunisia will only further erode the EU's credibility abroad.

"Both governments are weaponising hate speech against migrants and refugees to pressure the EU for receiving more money," said Hussein Baoumi, an officer with Amnesty.

He said Tunisian authorities continue to round up and conduct mass arbitrary explosions of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, to Libya and Algeria.

"These mass expulsions are still happening with the same pattern," he said, noting widespread racism against sub-Saharan Africans.

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