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Exactly one year ago, on 20 June 2022, the Council of the European Union approved conclusions on a strategic partnership with the Gulf. "One year later, the presence and the image of the European Union in the GCC remains faded. US “repositioning”, a polite way for describing US failures in the Middle East, has left a vacuum," writes commonspace.eu in this editorial. "One expected that the European Union would fill some, if not all of it. It has failed to do so. What we have seen instead is a massive Chinese charm offensive, followed by a more wobbly Russian one, with others like India trailing not far behind."
A statement on that occasion said that “the objective is to build a strategic partnership with the Gulf Cooperation Council and its member states. An enhanced and deep cooperation between the EU and the Gulf partners is a key priority for the European Union and a shared interest in view of addressing a series of global and regional challenges jointly with our Gulf partners. The Council Conclusions along with the High Representative’s and Commission’s Joint Communication provide an operational roadmap towards a strategic partnership in a wide range of key policy fields, such as climate change and green transition, energy security and a strong response to global humanitarian and development needs and global and regional security challenges.”
One year later, the presence and the image of the European Union in the GCC remains faded. US “repositioning”, a polite way for describing US failures in the Middle East, has left a vacuum. One expected that the European Union would fill some, if not all of it. It has failed to do so. What we have seen instead is a massive Chinese charm offensive, followed by a more wobbly Russian one, with others like India trailing not far behind.
One year ago, the decision from the Council gave one some hope that the EU recognised both the enormity and the urgency of working with the Gulf. It said, “in light of the recent increased political momentum, the Council stresses the need to further strengthen and enhance political dialogue and institutional cooperation between the EU and the Gulf Cooperation Council. The EU will use all its tools and instruments, including the Green Deal, the External Energy Engagement Strategy and the Global Gateway, to ensure the efficient, effective and swift implementation of this new strategic partnership with the Gulf.” How exactly the EU has done this in the last year remains unclear.
It is true that allegations of scandal in the European Parliament involving illegal payments to MEPs from Gulf states have distorted the picture, and made the topic of EU-GCC relations somewhat toxic. Those who do not understand that these relations are of much more significance than the travails of the odd MEP are making a big mistake.
Some hope with new EU Special Representative Luigi de Maio
The European Union works in ways that are mysterious for most outsiders. European bureaucrats plod along, most of the time efficiently even if colourlessly, and there is no doubt this is also happening when it comes to relations with the GCC. But optics matter, and the optics are not good. The EU desperately needs a sharp and modern communications strategy in the Gulf, and there is little sign of that yet.
There is some hope that the new EU Special Representative for the region, former Italian foreign minister, Luigi de Maio, may start addressing the issues. He took the job on 1 June. According to the EU, the tasks of the new EU Special Representative will be “to further develop a stronger, comprehensive and more strategic EU partnership with the countries in the Gulf region by supporting the High Representative in the implementation of the foreign policy and security aspects of the EU joint communication on a Strategic Partnership with the Gulf of 18 May 2022 and the related Council conclusions of 20 June 2022.”
“The EUSR will seek best ways to contribute to the stability and security of the region by engaging and supporting dialogue and long-term regional solutions with individual Gulf partners and relevant regional organisations. He will equally support and cooperate with the Council and the European Commission to help ensure the consistency of the EU’s external action in the region, and contribute to increase the visibility and understanding of the role of the EU.”
De Maio’s term is for 21 months, so one expected that he would hit the road running. But we have heard little so far about what he is doing. Sources in the Gulf told commonspace.eu that not everyone is happy with De Maio, and some in the region may not like the politics he is associated with. That in itself should not be an insurmountable obstacle. A clever EUSR has plenty of tools he can use for engaging with his interlocoteurs. He will have to build up his contacts and his partners slowly, so time is against him.
But what Di Maio can and should do with a much bigger sense of urgency is to keep Brussels focused on the Gulf, and to set up the sort of long term projects that will start giving results long after he is gone.
A key area in the EU Strategic partnership is people. The strategy states that “people to people contacts are a central part of the EU’s strengthened partnership with the Gulf. Enhanced cooperation in the fields of education, research, culture, youth, women’s empowerment, human rights and visa facilitation are key components of this cooperation.” So much can and needs to be done in this sector, although De Maio will be well advised to focus on education and research as the priority, not least because this is also the priority of the EU’s Gulf partners.
Finally, part of the role of an EUSR is to try to join up different aspects and elements of the massive and complex EU machinery – not to mention also trying to keep some sense of co-ordination with the 27 member states.
The chances that De Maio will succeed in most of these tasks are very low. But at least if he focuses on a few long term projects that would consolidate people to people contacts, this would be a good investment for the future.
GCC countries need to get their act together in Europe too
It is no consolation, that in reverse the situation is not much better. GCC outreach in Brussels and in the EU generally is fragmented, driven by oddities rather than strategic priorities. GCC countries accuse western countries of taking them for granted. That may be true but they are equally guilty of the same sin, with little regard for long term impact.
Relations between the EU and the GCC are hugely important for both. There is no place for lethargy or for mediocrity in pursuing these relations and some fresh thinking is required on both sides.