Le Blog d'Olivier Da Lage

Why do the CGG and the European Union need a stronger partnership (Intervention à Abou Dhabi le 12 décembre 2005)

Why do the CGG and the European Union need a stronger partnership

By Olivier Da Lage*


The European Union is the Gulf cooperation council’s main trading partner, the two blocs have signed in 1988 a cooperation agreement which entered into force in 1990. But the truth of the matter is that this cooperation has been proving to be well below the expectations and very disappointing for both partners thus far.

1 The framework of the GGC-UE co-operation

When the GCC was founded, in this very city of Abu Dhabi in May 1981, the draft eventually approved by the leaders drew heavily on the example set by the European Common Market. It took time for the GCC to establish itself, and it is not over yet. Actually, the same applies to the European Union. To be sure, the two entities are very different. Let me point out some of these differences:
• The GCC comprises 6 countries whereas the European Union has 25 members (but it also started with only 6 members);

• The GCC states share a common language while the EU has to deal with more than 20 different tongues;

• In the GCC, the economy is based on oil, even for a state like Bahrain whose oil fields are nearly depleted. European economies are based on manufacturing goods and providing services (but the economies of some Gulf entities, such as Dubai and Bahrain are increasingly following suit).

On the other hand, the GCC and the European Union do share some common features:

• A strong regional identity: for all its diversity and internal squabbling, there is indeed a perceived European identity which is perhaps better recognised outside Europe than inside, but which is a reality nonetheless. Similarly, over the past 30 years, there is no doubt that a “Gulfian” identity, a khaliji identity has developed, as opposed, for instance to the inner Arabian Peninsula, and more generally the rest of the Arab world.

• The institutions of the two regional blocs are, on the whole, working properly, despite the crises that may occur from time to time.
o The European Union has always progressed through institutional crises – and at this very moment, it certainly is in a deep crisis. But in the meantime, the very idea of Europe goes forward and summits are being held on schedule, officials and ministers talk to each other and advance their common agenda. When it is not feasible, they agree to disagree and try to find a solution as soon as possible. No matter how deep the disagreement, there is a strong sense that we’re in it together.
o Gulf summits are held regularly, once a year – usually in December – no matter what; the same applies to ministerial meetings, or the gatherings of experts and bureaucrats. True: there have been a few boycotts or walkouts by heads of state, but, despite these incidents, the GCC machinery still works. Now, just have a look at he Arab League or the Arab Maghreb Union, where negotiations on the very venue of the summit may take years and where summits are sometimes cancelled at the very last minute because of political disagreements or, for that matter, the ill-placed ego of some leaders.

• The GCC has adopted a Customs union in 2003 and will have a common currency in 2010, just like Europe.

• The origin of the groupings:

o The European Common Market was founded after World War II by six countries. Now, the European Union has 25 members and is asking itself what are the geographical limits of its expansion (Turkey? Ukraine? Armenia?).

o The GCC was founded by 6 countries during the Iran-Iraq war as a syndicate of oil monarchies. But the question of Yemen’s admission to the club is now an open one, whereas it was a taboo only ten years ago (like Turkey for Europe?). And one should not hesitate to contemplate the possibility that in a distant future, Iraq and Iran might also join the GCC. In any case, these two countries have to be somehow integrated into an organisation with the current GCC members if stability in the Gulf is considered a long term strategic goal.

2 Why should there be a Euro-Gulf co-operation at all?

There are obvious economic answers to this question: the European Union is the main trading partner of the GCC. The Arab Gulf states have the oil Europe needs and Europe exports manufactured goods and services required in the GCC. But a formal dialogue between the two blocs is hardly needed to trade. One should consider the need for a CGG-UE partnership in the light of the widely admitted failure of the so-called Euro-Arab dialogue launched in the late 70’s and the very disappointing results of the Barcelona process, which was initiated 10 years ago between the European Union and its neighbours from the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean.
• It is a foregone conclusion that the discussions on the free trade agreement which have been underway since 1990 between the GCC and the EU will eventually succeed, even though 15 years may seem ridiculously long for such a negotiation. But, in my opinion, what is really at stake is not there: the essence of the dialogue should be political and not economic or commercial. The European Union is not just a trading bloc, nor is the Gulf co-operation council.

• The EU and the GCC are both poles of stability in a very unstable world. They have a strategic interest in deepening their dialogue.

• Globalisation does not affect only economy but also ideas. Over the past decade, one has witnessed a democratisation process in the Gulf monarchies whereas until the early 90’s, it was a taboo subject and, at times, the very idea of introducing parliamentary elections in the Gulf was branded by some government officials as imported ideas alien to the traditional core values of Gulf societies. This is no longer the case, far from it, and these developments bring about a feeling of shared values between Gulf and European citizens, which greatly facilitates a political rapprochement at the institutional level. One should not, however, minimize the real differences which exist in terms of values, as is the case regarding the death penalty, for example. But if there is to be a dialogue at all, better start with identifying and admitting existing differences.

Political cooperation doesn’t mean to reach at any cost artificial accords leaving aside disagreements where they exist for the sake a publishing empty joint communiqués quickly forgotten by everyone. On the other hand, one should not underestimate the possibility to reach substantial agreements on the political level between the GCC and the European Union.

• Talking from a European perspective, I should point out that since the Iraq war of 2003, there is a widespread feeling in Europe that, more than ever, the Gulf is becoming an American lake. Never in the past has the US presence been so strong and visible in every field, whereas we are talking about defence, trade or culture. One is under the impression that the GCC states have, separately and as a whole, sub-contracted defence and security to the United States, which is, by the way, quite understandable. Meanwhile, the US do not eye favourably an increased presence of Europe as such in the Arabian Peninsula which it seems to consider as its own game preserve.

3 A strategic shared interest for the CCG and the EU

Is the solution for the GCC to have the US as a strategic partner, and the European Union as a trading partner? Too simplistic! The European union cannot – and doesn’t wish – to compete with the US in terms of military strength. But pure military might (US model) is showing its limits in Iraq. As a result of this failure, the “soft power” approach and multilateralism is being rehabilitated. The European union has precisely considerable know-how and experience regarding soft power. To start with, the European union talks to everyone, without exception. One can find an example of this in the role played by the European troika (the so-called E3) in engaging with the Iranian government over their nuclear ambitions, with now the recent support of the Bush Administration! It is typically a case for Euro-Gulf dialogue. One can also envisage to set up an organisation designed to improve regional security on the pattern of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), with the presence of Iraq and Iran.

So, after all, even if the European union has less visible muscles than the United States, its contribution to regional security in the Gulf is also to be reckoned with, and that can be done only through a comprehensive and structured dialogue between the European union an the Gulf cooperation council.

* Journaliste à RFI


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