Europe and the Gulf must move beyond generalities

Posted in Broader Middle East | 30-Nov-05 | Author: Christian Koch| Source: The Daily Star (Lebanon Edition)

A general view of the opening session of the 24th annual meeting of the interior ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, held in Manama.

In the past two years, relations between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and the European Union have moved forward at their fastest pace since the signing of the Cooperation Agreement in 1988. It wasn't always so. Tangible progress was scant before the agreement and it was only after the GCC Customs Union of 2003, the EU's December 2003 policy document on strengthening relations with the Arab world and its June 2004 announcement of a strategic partnership with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern states, that progress finally appeared to be in the cards. In late 2004 the EU opened a delegation office in Riyadh, and the Manama ministerial meeting last April indicated that the long-awaited GCC-EU free-trade agreement might finally be concluded by the end of this year - after a decade and a half of negoatiations.

Yet, these steps are all general. There is now an additional danger that the GCC might once again disappear from the EU's priority list, in a year that has not been a good one for the union. The rejection of the new European constitution by France and the Netherlands was not followed by a clear strategy to rescue the unification process. EU states have also been unable to agree on a long-term budget, while the Unite Kingdom and France have engaged in open dispute over agricultural subsidies and budget rebates.

In the region as well there have been setbacks. At the beginning of August, the much-anticipated offer to Iran by the EU-3 regarding the Iranian nuclear program ended in a stern rebuke and a decision by the Islamic Republic to resume uranium enrichment activities. Meanwhile, just as the EU was about to begin talks with Turkey over possible EU membership, Austria made a last-minute suggestion that a "privileged partnership" should be sought as an alternative to full membership. This put the EU's credibility on the line, but also opened up a debate about enlargement and the EU's ability to absorb new states.

As it drifts from crisis to crisis, the EU's sense of direction and strategic focus appears increasingly to have been lost.

Europe's inability to formulate other than reactive and short-term political statements does not inspire confidence that it can regain the momentum and overcome the challenges it is facing. This is of consequence not only internally in the union, but also with regard to other critical areas, such as the EU's neighborhood policy and the further development of its common foreign and security policy, both of which require more work and further clarification concerning objectives and outlook.

That's why, as far as the GCC is concerned, there is a possibility that, after several years of consistent EU efforts to formulate a strategy toward the Gulf, the emphasis will now shift away to items of EU concern. The result will not necessarily be a downgrading in the importance of the relationship, but will almost certainly mean a lesser sense of urgency. Most significantly, there will be no serious

attempt to turn the current general policy statements into specific initiatives incorporating practical forms of cooperation. There may be much talk but little action.

This would be unfortunate. In recent years the EU has realized that the threats and challenges confronting the Gulf region must be addressed through a mixture of political and economic tools; but also that traditional trade and development policies are effective tools for promoting reform, and that preventive engagement is crucial to averting future crises. GCC countries have reciprocated to a degree by indicating that the EU's approach to regional security, while not a substitute for American policy, does offer prospects for stability and is, therefore, worth pursuing.

To capitalize on these realizations, and to avoid allowing the GCC-EU relationship to be relegated to the backburner, the EU must concentrate its Gulf policy on doing four things.

First, it must conclude the free-trade agreement. This is a political imperative and would provide substance to the EU's Strategic Partnership Initiative, adopted in June 2004, which continues to lack depth. Successfully concluding the agreement would be a powerful sign that the EU is committed to backing its statements with real progress.

Second, the EU must maintain an open channel of communication with Iran's leadership. Despite the lack of progress and tangible results in the dispute over the Iranian nuclear program, Europe's negotiations with Tehran were a useful means to voice official reservations about Iranian intentions. Negotiations need to be kept open, even if the immediate prospect of an agreement remains bleak. In addition, the EU should continue dealing with Iran on the two tracks of the Comprehensive Dialogue and the Dialogue on Human Rights.

Third, the EU should broaden its engagement in Iraq, whose stability is vital for Gulf security. Continued lawlessness and possible deterioration toward Iraq's fragmentation would have devastating consequences for the Gulf and the entire region. While Europe cannot change the security parameters on the ground, its role in training police forces, supporting institution-building and extension of the rule of law, and promoting civil society is very much needed and could be critical for the medium-term revival of the Iraqi state. It is also imperative that the EU not disregard its responsibilities and leave the field for others to dominate.

Fourth, Europe should reopen discussion with the GCC on "decentralized cooperation," especially in the field of media, higher education and security-sector governance. All of these issues will gain importance in the near future, meaning the EU can help shape the agenda. Moreover, the union's experience and policy instruments are valuable tools for sharpening the practical modalities of cooperation.

For much of the Gulf region, the EU serves as a model for cooperation and integration and as a channel to helping the GCC reap the benefits of a globalized world. On many of the key issues concerning security and stability in the region, the EU and the GCC happen to be in agreement. Both sides must capitalize on this.

Christian Koch is director of the GCC-EU Relations program at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with the GRC.