Better GCC-European Union relations?

THE 17th session of the Joint Council between the European Community and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states was held on May 8, 2007, in Riyadh. Since the previous joint council meeting in Brussels in May 2006, expectations had been high that the Riyadh meeting would produce consensus on the long-awaited Free Trade Agreement (FTA), and thereby carry the relationship between the EU and the GCC to a new level.

By Dr Christian Koch

Published: Sun 20 May 2007, 8:38 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:27 AM

This, however, did not happen. Instead, the final communiqué simply referred to the fact that "important progress has been made," that "the parties are getting closer to an agreement," that the joint council "reaffirmed its commitment to such an agreement," and finally to encouraging "negotiators to further intensify their efforts to reach a mutually satisfactory outcome in the nearest future."

On the surface, such statements sound glaringly similar to the ones from past meetings where progress was announced leading to optimism that the negotiations would be concluded soon. Too many times, officials and negotiators suggested that the agreement would be signed "this year" or that negotiations would be concluded "by year’s end." Certainly from such a perspective, the GCC-EU joint council meeting once again failed to deliver. It was possibly also the reason why press reports prior to the ministerial meeting were minimal, almost as if to keep expectations low and then not to have to confront the disappointment of an FTA that once again was not finalised.

Yet, it would be too easy to simply say that because the council meeting did not produce the final treaty, the meeting had failed. Looking at the developments in the GCC-EU relationship over the past year and reading the final communiqué closely suggests that indeed progress is being made. More importantly, the discussions have broadened to include issues that are not dependent on a free trade agreement being in place, thereby underlining the willingness and determination by both sides to look beyond the FTA and see what else can be accomplished. This by itself is an important development that should not be underestimated.

On the FTA, the two sides are as close as ever. First, it needs to be remembered that while many have lamented the long period during which this agreement has been under consideration, the fact remains that once concluded, the EU-GCC FTA will represent a precedent as the first free trade agreement negotiated between two multilateral groups. Second, progress has indeed been made and the past year has witnessed numerous technical meetings in which both sides have bargained hard for their respective positions. What became clear in these bargaining sessions is that both sides do not want an agreement that simply looks good on paper but an agreement that actually works. Third, the political will that has often been missing in the past has been clearly visible under the German EU presidency with an intense effort to move negotiations forward. In this context, the statement by GCC Secretary-General Abdul Rahman Al-Attiyah that the upcoming June meeting between GCC and EU negotiators would be "the one that will wrap up discussions" is certainly encouraging and suggests that negotiations are truly coming to an end.

Beyond the FTA discussions, what might be more important is the fact that the joint communiqué underscores the shared political will by both sides to strengthen their relations and deepen cooperation in "all areas" covered by the 1988 Cooperation Agreement. Up to this point, the stalemate over the FTA was often seen as barring the two sides from considering other proposals, thereby acting as a sort of mental block that prevented other ideas from being considered. The meeting in Riyadh, however, made it clear that both the GCC and the EU are determined to regain the initiative and look at where the relationship can be transformed into something "concrete" and "practical."

Far from being complacent, the EU and the GCC have engaged in a number of expert meetings since the beginning of 2007 to look at specific fields of cooperation. This included a joint cooperation committee meeting in February, a regional director’s meeting in March, an expert level dialogue on the effects of climate change in January, and an energy expert group meeting at the end of April. Later in May, the two sides will hold their fourth joint seminar on combating terrorist financing in Doha, while a second economic dialogue meeting was also agreed to. This is indeed the momentum that can be capitalised upon.

Equally important is the fact that the concept of "decentralised cooperation," first mentioned following the 1995 Granada meeting, has been revitalised with emphasis being placed on promoting cooperation between universities in both regions, with the creation of a "Gulf window" within the EU’s Erasmus Mundus program for students from the region and with the opening to GCC participation within the 7 th EU Framework Research programme in the fields of science and technology. Further, there was agreement to strengthen the cultural dialogue between the two sides. In fact, the communiqué devoted an entire paragraph to this issue and the Alliance of Civilisations initiative.

It is important to ensure that many of these ideas are implemented so that progress does not remain limited to statements which sound good. The efforts to promote stronger and deeper GCC-EU ties appears to be bearing fruit and both sides will be well advised to follow through on their agreements. It is worth noting that cooperation can still be expanded further. For example, on decentralised cooperation, the establishment of youth and academic networks as well as exchange programs between journalists should be considered. At a more technical level, the EU can extend its assistance to support GCC integration efforts such as in the implementation of the GCC common market planned for the end of the year. Regionally, the EU and GCC should focus on development projects in both Yemen and the wider Mediterranean region as a contribution to stability and economic advancement. These are areas of vital concern for both sides and the combination of financial assistance and practical expertise from the EU and the GCC can go a long way to add to regional security.

The overall timing of the recent GCC-EU meeting could not have been more opportune as the region continues to be faced with numerous challenges, which require positive action. The pronouncements from the meeting certainly point to that direction with many areas highlighted where cooperation and progress is possible. As such, the joint council meeting must be seen as a step in the right direction.

Dr Christian Koch is the Director of International Studies at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai

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