GCC-EU ties are improving, but obstacles remain

GCC-EU ties are improving, but obstacles remain

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Relations between the Gulf Cooperation Council and the EU are on a positive trajectory, in general. The points of contact between the two have intensified markedly in recent years on both the governmental and institutional levels, guided by a Strategic Partnership Document proposed by the EU in May 2022.
Europe has underlined its determination to play a stronger role in regional security by contributing to the deescalation of tensions in the wider Middle East, among other things. An example of this was the participation of 19 EU member states in the recent Aspides naval operation to help safeguard shipping in the Red Sea.
The partnership agreement represents the key policy guidelines from the European side for enhancing its relationship with the GCC, with a focus on six main areas: trade and investment; the green transition and energy security; regional security and stability; humanitarian and developmental issues; governance, reform, and human rights; and institutional cooperation.
There has been particular improvement in the field of institutional relations over the past two years. In addition to the 27th GCC-EU Joint Council and Ministerial Meeting that took place in Muscat on Oct. 9-10 last year, the two sides reached an agreement on a number of other institutional mechanisms, including a work plan covering the years 2022 until 2027 that is continuously updated; a mechanism for regular, structured GCC-EU regional security dialogue, involving four working groups; and a high-level forum on regional security and cooperation to complement the work that is done during official GCC-EU meetings.
The first of the structured regional security talks took place in Riyadh in January, and a high-level forum will convene on April 22 in Luxembourg.
Other recent gatherings include the 31st meeting of the GCC-EU Joint Cooperation Committee, in February 2023; the 24th meeting of the Political Committee (January 2023); the 12th GCC-EU Macroeconomic Dialogue (November 2022); the fifth Trade and Investment Dialogue (March 2023); and the inaugural meeting of the GCC Aid and EU Services Committee (September 2023). In addition, the seventh GCC-EU Business Forum took place in November 2023 in Bahrain.
During the past two years there has also been an increase in the number of official visits by high-level European officials to the Gulf, including European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen; European Council President Charles Michel; and the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, who has, in fact, visited GCC member countries several times. Such high-level visits have become the norm rather than the exception, as was the case in the past.
In addition, numerous EU commissioners have visited GCC countries to hold talks, highlighting a determination to build closer relations across a variety of policy issues. In return, GCC Secretary-General Jasem Albudaiwi has traveled to Brussels several times, most recently last month.

GCC-EU relations remain a work in progress, in which ties must continually be reassessed and adjusted. 

Christian Koch

In terms of fostering closer ties between the EU and GCC, the appointment of Luigi Di Maio, an Italian former foreign minister, as the new EU special representative for the Gulf region has been particularly important. Since taking up the position in June 2023, he has engaged with all sectors in the GCC, making it clear from day one that his first task was to listen to regional stakeholders, and gain their insights and perspectives, before deciding on a clear plan of action for the EU.
Writing in a regional newspaper in November, Di Maio wrote: “We can write the perfect strategy in Brussels, but we need to work together (on) how we can converge and execute our shared ambitions and priorities. The real point is now to prioritize with the countries of the GCC … a common map to go ahead.”
His approach has, on the whole, been well received within GCC states and, as a result, it can be argued that he has been able to overcome any initial skepticism about his appointment and gain a high degree of acceptance among Gulf policy leadership.
Closer institutional relations between the EU and GCC provide an important foundation for more substantive and broader ties. Equally relevant has been the EU’s acknowledgment of the active role the GCC states are playing in their neighborhood, characterizing them as “emerging players on the international stage,” and underlining their growing influence, regionally and globally.
As the Gulf experiences unparalleled levels of economic and societal change, combined with a volatile regional security climate, Europe must continue to acknowledge the new dynamics in play in the region or risk seeing its interests fail to receive proper consideration.
Regarding the war in Gaza, the initial position taken by European nations of unconditional support for Israel met with deep disappointment inside the GCC, leading to charges of hypocrisy, double standards, and moral failure, in particular when compared with the contrasting EU position on Ukraine.
Only as the Israeli onslaught in Gaza intensified and public protests across the continent increased did the European position begin to shift. Calls for an immediate ceasefire began to gain momentum by the end of last year, but some would argue this was too little, too late in terms of preventing the greater calamity of dragging the entire Middle East, once again, into a period of prolonged instability and uncertainty.
There is, therefore, a lot of work to be done. In terms of the current crisis in the Middle East, it is to be hoped that the upcoming EU-GCC high-level forum in Luxembourg will serve as a further step in developing a common plan of action for the two sides to follow.
Of equal importance, however, is progress on the many other issues contained in the Strategic Partnership Document, including the revitalization of EU-GCC Free Trade Area negotiations; the establishment of a dedicated EU-GCC expert group on energy and the climate; and an EU-GCC ministerial meeting on humanitarian assistance. Particular emphasis must be placed on increased mobility of Gulf residents at the youth, cultural and educational levels. This includes the provision by European nations of visa services for all GCC countries as soon as possible.
What all this suggests is that GCC-EU relations remain a work in progress, in which ties must continually be reassessed and adjusted according to the demands of changing circumstances.
There has, indeed, been a greater degree of convergence of late on key policy issues and the two sides have reiterated their shared interests in a wide variety of areas.
Yet, while a degree of momentum in cooperation between the GCC and EU has been apparent, there is at the same time a sense of deja vu, given the fact that numerous pronouncements in the past either failed to materialize in practice or did not live up to expectations.
Europe remains the partner of choice for GCC states in many domains. The more effective the ties between them, and the ways in which they can be structured, the more sustainable the relationship will prove to be.

  • Christian Koch is director of research at the Gulf Research Center.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point of view