April 20 2011
Director of International Studies
Gulf Research Center
On , the 21st EU-GCC Joint Ministerial Meeting will take place in Abu Dhabi. The fact that the two sides have met regularly since the signing of their Cooperation Agreement back in 1988 is significant in its own right and demonstrates the value both the GCC and the EU place in the development of their relations. But more needs to be done especially on the GCC side. Given the turmoil that is currently spreading throughout the Middle East and the fact that the resulting political environment is likely to be characterized by a high degree of volatility for years to come, the role of Europe is set to become more central and relevant, not only for Europe’s own immediate neighborhood of the Mediterranean and the Levant but also for the Gulf. And in light of its own increased activism, a pro-active GCC working in concert with the EU can provide tangible benefits for the overall stability of the Middle Eastern region.
To begin with, the GCC states need to be aware that in recent years a growing consciousness has emerged within the institutions of the European Union about the Gulf’s strategic importance and about the requirement for a concerted European strategy vis-à-vis the GCC in this regard. Many European policy officials understand clearly that the borders have shifted and that the Middle East is now a direct neighbor whose challenges simply cannot be kept away at arms length. For the GCC states, this was underlined in a report released last month by the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament which acknowledged that the GCC is the only stable regional organization based on multilateralism and cooperation; that Gulf sovereign wealth funds helped to rescue the global and European financial system; that the GCC member states play a key role in the global arena, and that, as a result, the EU needs to develop a strategy for the region aimed at strengthening its ties with the GCC, supporting the regional integration process, and encouraging bilateral relations with GCC member states.
The parliamentary report is a key document that opens the door for further and more substantive relations. In addition, the report follows in the wake of the adoption of the Joint Action Programme (JAP) by the EU-GCC Joint Ministerial Council in their last ministerial session in Luxembourg in June 2010. This action plan offers a roadmap for the development of relations in 14 specific areas. As noted by the communiqué issued at the meeting, the JAP “reflects a shared ambition to reinforce cooperation in a number of key strategic areas of mutual interest, including economic, financial and monetary cooperation; investment, trade, energy and the environment, transport, industry, telecommunications and information technology, education and scientific research, and culture and mutual understanding.” The High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Lady Catherine Ashton stressed that the programme “confirms aspirations from both sides to have a more strategic relationship.” To take the JAP further, the EU parliamentary report calls for its implementation with a precise and detailed funding scheme ultimately leading to the establishment of an EU-GCC cooperation agency. Such a step would bring together the various other recent initiatives the European Union has taken to institutionalize relations with the GCC, for example, in the fields of Public Diplomacy, Clean Energy, and Cooperation in Higher Education. What it also demonstrates is the clear objective to move relations to the level of a strategic partnership.
To take advantage of this, the GCC states themselves need to implement an agenda that acknowledges this shift in the European position and seeks to engage Europe on the numerous issues that are of concern and direct relevance to both sides. There are several dimensions to this.
The first is with regard to the goals and aims of the GCC itself. As the council approaches the 30th year anniversary of its establishment in May 1981, there is a need to put forward a concrete strategic vision that outlines the steps required to achieve truly effective regional integration and reflects the GCC’s ambitions and its increased relevance. Recent events have underlined the necessity for a deeper unity within the GCC and the importance of proceeding as one regional bloc. And in terms of integration, there is no more successful example than the European Union.
Secondly, both Europe and the GCC share an interest in a stable Middle East that reflects the aspirations of its people and which provides a forward-looking evolutionary political environment. But neither is strong enough to influence the events on the ground on their own. Thus, a stronger relationship is required between the Gulf and Europe in order to both correctly understand and assess the dynamics which are shaping the current developments in the Middle East and to work out joint strategies which reflect that reality. Europe is a competent partner in this regard and given its own experience of having dealt with the transition of Eastern Europe after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the European approach is often more realistic than that of the United States. The EU also has at its disposal a variety of soft-power policy tools that are critical to tackle many of today’s existing and emerging challenges. This contains direct and distinct advantages for the GCC.
Third and finally, if the GCC states want to see their interests reflected in other policy circles and become part of the mainstream debate, they need to take their message abroad and undertake a more concerted and deliberate lobbying effort. The way to shape policy and influence debate is to communicate effectively, both privately and publicly, the positions of the GCC states and to set the record straight. Such an effort requires adequate financial and administrative resources but this is a small investment compared to the more responsive and positive environment that is the ultimate outcome. In Brussels, the GCC states do have institutional partners willing to listen and ready to cooperate. And given the EU’s own commitment to strengthening bilateral ties, it is time for the GCC to reciprocate.
Dr. Christian Koch is the Director of International Studies at the Gulf Research Center