As a follow-up to a seminar on EU-GCC relations in November 2005, the Istituto Affari Internazionali and Gulf Research Center, in cooperation with the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, held a one-day workshop in Rome on December 13 on how to foster EU-Italy-GCC Cooperation.
The meeting brought together policy officials and academics from both Europe and the GCC countries who engaged not only in an assessment about the current status of the EU-GCC relationship but also focused on what steps could be taken to improve the current level of cooperation, which has not been satisfactory. Three areas represented the discussion framework: EU-GCC cooperation in the context of globalization and regional developments; organizing a regional security system in the Gulf; and the security of European energy supply, the role of nuclear energy and the Gulf countries’ contribution.
That the Gulf holds enormous importance for Europe not only from energy and economic viewpoints, but also increasingly from a strategic perspective was not subject to any intense discussion. While there exists a debate about the continued centrality of oil in the long-term, the fact that the energy market is unlikely to be confronted with a revolutionary shake-up in the very-near future, suggests that EU-GCC relations will remain relevant. Yet, it is equally clear that ties have not produced their desired results. Numerous reasons were cited in explanation: one, the integration process in each area is driven by different motivations with the EU’s process being economy-driven, while in the GCC, security imperatives dominate the integration debate; second, bilateralism remains very prominent on both sides; and third, since economy and trade continue to be the key issues, other important areas, such as cultural dialogue or better people-to-people contacts, do not receive necessary attention.
Given the shortcomings, a theme that kept dominating the discussions was whether it would be useful to continue deliberating on the relationship solely on the basis of EU-GCC ties or whether that framework is becoming outdated given the current regional developments. The fact that the EU has fostered a number of approaches to the Middle East region – EU-GCC, the European Mediterranean Policy, the European Neighborhood Policy, the critical dialogue with Iran, a separate relationship with Yemen – led to the point that EU policies have actually helped divide the region more than integrating it or as one commentator put it, “cutting it off from its hinterland”. The EU-GCC framework is furthermore seen as not meeting the challenges which both sides see themselves confronted with in the post-9/11 environment, including on the EU side an increased anxiety over energy supplies, and on the GCC side, concerns over rising regional instability that includes an imploding Iraq, an assertive Iran and a fragile state in Yemen.
The current debate has thus to be understood within the context of a general strategic shift occurring as far as the region is concerned. First, there is a more focused orientation of the Gulf toward Asia spurred by high energy demand, a rise in investments and a general sense that relations with the West have not served the the region’s cause. On the energy front, GCC exports go largely to Asia while exports to the EU continue to decline. A loss of mutual interest is therefore a distinct possibility. Second, it needs to be recognized that the traditional geopolitical balance in the Gulf has shifted with changes occurring at the state, identity, socio-economic and strategic levels. On all fronts – whether it is the GCC-Iran relationship that has moved from détente to Cold War, the deepening of Sunni-Shiite differences, an Iraqi economy in free fall, or an Arab region that still has not overcome the wound of the 1990-1991 Kuwait crisis – current trends point toward a unchanged or even worsening situation with regard to regional stability.
Such a situation calls for a different type of security arrangement. While the present balance of power approach is preventing any type of cooperative mechanisms from taking hold, there is general agreement that a new approach is imperative. But this can only be on the basis of an inclusive dialogue, a manageable but multi-dimensional agenda, and clear support by external forces. Particular suggestions that were put forward in this context included the engagement of both the EU and the GCC states in an Iraq Coordination Forum, cooperation in countering terrorism and drug trafficking, and a dialogue on environmental issues.
The suggestion that the regional environment had changed to the point where the EU-GCC framework was no longer sufficient then turned to a consideration of possible alternatives. One suggestion was for the revival of the Euro-Arab Dialogue whereby it would be possible to consider the broader strategic questions impacting on the Middle East region as a whole. For some, while the EU-GCC relationship is seen to be useful, a broader dialogue at the Euro-Arab level was considered absolutely necessary. Second, the question was raised whether or not more time should be invested in strengthening the Arab League which continues to exist as the only pan-Arab grouping under which a comprehensive Middle East approach could be considered. Both these suggestions reflect the fact that linkages across the Middle East are currently stronger than ever to the point that Gulf issues cannot be separated from the rest.
Participants agreed that Europe needs to show clarity in purpose and more decisiveness when it comes to regional initiatives and policy. Nevertheless, it is equally important that a possible conclusion to the long-awaited EU-GCC Free Trade Agreement (FTA) should not be portrayed as providing the solution under which ties between the two sides can regain their footing. In this context, the GCC side also needs to recognize that substance can only be achieved if both sides act in a reciprocal manner.
In conclusion, the meeting agreed that there exists a wide scope for following through on a more ambitious agenda regarding the present EU-GCC ties. The FTA will not change relations but it will certainly create a window of opportunity that must be seized. Specific areas that could be capitalized on include cooperation in the development of strategic oil stocks, the improvement of Gulf education systems through EU expertise, and the combination of Gulf investments and EU know-how in the development of the neighboring Mediterranean economies.