Maintaining Momentum in GCC-EU Ties
When foreign ministers and officials from the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the European Union (EU) gather on April 29, 2009 for their annual joint ministerial council meeting, most of the attention will be focused on the status of the free trade area (FTA) negotiations which were suspended by the GCC side last December. The key question is: will there be a renewed commitment to try to conclude a multilateral FTA between the two groups or will the GCC and the EU abandon the idea for now and focus on other areas of cooperation?
No doubt the announcement by GCC Secretary-General Abdulrahman Al-Attiyah at the end of 2008 of the unilateral suspension of the FTA talks took the EU by surprise. But it should not have. The fact was that the talks, although complicated and detailed, had been going on for too long with never-ending suggestions since 2003 that this would be the year that the deal would finally be sealed. The GCC also felt that it was the one being asked to make concessions always and that negotiations increasingly were a one-way street where the EU demanded and the GCC had to give in. Without sufficient flexibility from the EU side, the continuations of talks became untenable, and thus the decision to take a time out.
Naturally, the failure to make any headway in the FTA negotiations was seen as the prime example highlighting the shortcomings, even failure, in overall GCC-EU relations. The inability to bring talks to a fruitful end after what appeared to be decades of discussions was indicative of the fact that institutional ties had not developed sufficiently. Yet, such characterization is not completely accurate if one takes a more comprehensive look at how GCC-EU relations have developed. Even as far as the suspended FTA talks are concerned, one could take a more positive view by arguing that the fact that the two sides were engaged in serious negotiations was the result of increased institutional relations. In addition, to view the suspension of the negotiations by the GCC as an end by itself is simply short-sighted. It is a temporary measure that can be reversed.
Looking at the glass as half full instead of half empty is even more necessary when one considers the numerous initiatives that have been put forward in the past five years alone. Here, one should not evaluate GCC-EU ties from the perspective of the Cooperation Agreement that has been in place for more than two decades but for which so far there is very little to show for. This would be unfair because for much of that period, the two sides were simply not ready - institutionally or politically - to engage in a substantive manner. That, however, has changed since 2004.
In fact, on all fronts outside of the FTA, relations have grown. The overall trade balance has more than doubled in the last five years, and the EU remains the GCCs largest trading partner. In addition to the annual ministerial council meeting which has been held regularly, there are other joint cooperation committees in place to deal with various matters. There are also numerous expert meetings that have been convened in the areas of environmental cooperation, energy, education, and combating money laundering and terrorist financing. A European Commission office has existed in Riyadh since 2004, and there are proposals being considered to open additional offices in other GCC states. Regular exchanges also take place with regard to many of the GCCs integration plans, from ways to improve the customs union to implementing the common market to looking at the introduction of a common currency. There have even been consultations as the GCC prepares to develop its own neighborhood policy and to learn from European experiences. All of this is supplemented by increased contact at the private and non-governmental levels. Far from being a picture of failure, GCC-EU ties are quite vibrant if one looks at the past few years.
Nevertheless, it is also time for the two sides to get more serious. For one, the EU must begin treating the GCC states on a more equal footing and to fully acknowledge that not only is regional integration an increasingly serious and broad undertaking that deserves more than their lip-service support, but that the GCC states as state entities are strong and dependable allies that are ready to deliver their end of the bargain. The GCC states want an FTA that reflects their national interests and addresses the burgeoning trade balance in favor of the EU. Here, the EU must show some flexibility in the negotiations and, if so, they will find that the relationship can be taken forward significantly. Besides sending a powerful message about the vibrancy of relations, a GCC-EU accord on trade would also sent the right signal against protectionism in the current tight financial times.
Equally, continued efforts needs to be made to press ahead with cooperation outside of the FTA framework. As listed above, there are many areas in which first steps have been taken. To be able to move these issues forward, however, the EU and the GCC should build their respective capacities both in terms of human resources that are allocated to the development of relations as well as in technical and financial means to provide the proper framework. Here, the emphasis should be on joint efforts instead of unilateral initiatives. Much more, for example, could be achieved in coordinating regional diplomacy and joint programs in such critical areas as Yemen, Afghanistan/Pakistan, the Mediterranean Region and the Horn of Africa.
Far from being moribund, GCC-EU ties have become increasingly active and vibrant. Therefore, the suspension in the FTA talks should not act as a brake, in fact it should push both sides to re-intensify efforts to conclude a deal. On all other fronts, the momentum of the past few years needs to be maintained.