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EU seals €7.4bn deal with Egypt in effort to avert another migration crisis

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EU leaders have sealed a €7.4bn (£6.3bn) deal with Egypt to help boost the country’s faltering economy, in an attempt to bring stability to the “troubled” region and avert another migration crisis in Europe.

The three-year EU-Egypt strategic partnership involves €5bn in soft loans to support economic changes, €1.8bn to support investments from the private sector and €600m in grants including €200m for migration management.

It comes just days after members of the European parliament accused Brussels of “bankrolling dictators” as a result of a similar deal with Tunisia last year.

Six EU leaders made the trip to Cairo on Sunday after “intense, effective diplomatic work” between the EU and Egypt in the past few months, said the Italian prime minister, Giorgia Meloni.

The European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, who led the delegation, said the deal underlined the “strategic location” of Egypt in a “very troubled neighbourhood” and the “vital role” it played in the “stability of the region”.

She used the occasion to renew a plea for a ceasefire in Gaza, the release of all hostages and urgent aid for Palestinians. “We are all extremely concerned about the war in Gaza and the unfolding catastrophic humanitarian situation. Gaza is facing famine and we cannot accept this. It is critical to achieve an agreement on a ceasefire rapidly now that frees the hostages and allows more humanitarian aid to reach Gaza,” she said.

She and Meloni were joined in their meeting with the Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, by the prime ministers of Greece, Austria, Cyprus and Belgium.

“The presence of six European leaders today shows how deeply we value our relationship. We share our strategic interests in stability and prosperity,” Von der Leyen told Sisi. “And given your political and economic weight as well as your strategic location in a very troubled neighbourhood, the importance of our relations will only increase over time.”

The three-year agreement is part of the bloc’s latest attempt to stop people crossing the Mediterranean but is much broader in scope than last year’s controversial €150m deal with Tunisia.

Meloni praised Sisi for Egypt’s role along with the US and Qatar in continuing efforts to end the war in Gaza and also touched on migration, a significant political issue domestically.

She said the best way the global north could persuade people in the global south not to emigrate to Europe was not just to dismantle people-smuggling gangs but to “reaffirm their rights” in the African continent and to help develop their economies. “It is exactly what we’re doing today,” she said.

The Belgian prime minister, Alexander De Croo, also used the occasion to pressure Israel. “The current situation in Gaza is unacceptable,” he said, adding that the international court of justice had already made a provisional ruling demanding Israel increase access for humanitarian aid. “What we have seen in practice is the opposite,” he said.

European governments have long been worried about the risk of instability in Egypt, a country of 106 million people that has been struggling to raise foreign currency. Economic adversity and poverty have pushed increasing numbers to leave the country in recent years.

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Greece and Italy are particularly concerned about the risk of another migrant crisis both from Gaza and in Egypt, which hosts about 9 million migrants and refugees, including 4 million from Sudan and 1.5 million Syrians, according to the UN’s International Organization for Migration.

Also in Egypt with Von der Leyen, Meloni and De Croo were Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the prime minister of Greece; Karl Nehammer, the Austrian chancellor; and the president of Cyprus, Nikos Christodoulides.

Human Rights Watch said the deal would “reward Egypt’s autocratic leader”.

It said that since Sisi took power in a 2013 coup and became president in 2014, his governments “have ruled Egypt with an iron fist”, suppressing opposition, jailing critics and stifling media and civil society.

“Now this abysmal repression is being rewarded with fresh support from the EU,” it said in a statement.

After being sharply criticised by MEPs on Wednesday, the EU said it strived to work with its neighbours and help improve democracy and human rights compliance through partnerships rather than breaking off relations with them.

The four-page joint declaration included commitments on human rights with a pledge that both sides “will continue to work on their commitments to further promote democracy, fundamental freedoms and human rights, gender equality and equal opportunities, as agreed in the partnership priorities”.

This article was amended on 18 March 2024. An earlier version said that there were 9 million refugees in Egypt; this should have said refugees and migrants.

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