By Nawab Khan
The 21st European Union-Gulf Cooperation Council meeting which was held in Abu Dhabi on April 20 has provided the springboard for a new leap that will have a profound impact on the relations between the two blocs in the years to come.
It was the first ministerial meeting between the 27-member European bloc and the six-member GCC since the downfall of the regimes in Egypt and Tunisia and came amid continued turmoil in Libya, Yemen and Syria which gave an added significance to the gathering.
EU High Representative Catherine Ashton, who led the EU side, hit the hammer on the nail when she commented that “recent developments in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula are a clear demonstration of the need for closer dialogue between the EU and GCC.”
Analysts are of the view that both blocs are bound to be affected by the changes in the region and are equally aware that there has to be joint initiatives to deal with the current turmoil in order to establish peace and security.
“Without doubt the EU and the GCC have many common interests, and today show how important it is that we lay the foundation for even closer cooperation and dialogue at all levels,” said Ashton.
In a joint communique, the EU and GGC expressed the view that “further strengthening EU-GCC relations would be an effective and valuable contribution to regional security and stability.”
Another significant development is reflected in the changing attitude of the EU towards the GCC. Observers say that gone are the days when Europe looked upon the Gulf countries as merely suppliers of oil and gas to the energy-hungry continent and as investors of petro dollars in European economies.
The EU now acknowledges that Gulf countries are important regional as well as global political and economic players.
Some GCC and European countries are actively involved in NATO’s operations in Libya, and Brussels admits that the declaration by the GCC in March of a no-fly zone in Libya contributed to the decision of the Arab League and then the United Nations Security Council to pronounce themselves in favour of such a zone.
Last March, the European Parliament adopted for the first time a report on EU relations with the GCC, calling for enhanced cooperation between the two sides.
The EP report stated that the EU “needs to develop a strategy for the region, aimed at strengthening its ties with the GCC, supporting the regional integration process and encouraging bilateral relations with the GCC member states.”
It stressed that “the objective is a strategic partnership with the GCC and its member states” and called for the holding of periodic summit meetings of heads of state and governments of the two groupings.
Moreover, the EU Foreign Affairs Council last week welcomed a GCC initiative on Yemen and said it fully recognises the role the GCC can play there as a mediator.
During their ministerial meeting in Luxembourg in June 2010 – which was chaired by Kuwaits Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Dr. Mohammad Sabah Al-Salem Al-Sabah – the EU and GCC adopted a three-year Joint Action Programme (JAP) to move forward to stronger cooperation.
The Abu Dhabi communique noted with satisfaction, progress on the implementation of the Joint Action Programme and reiterated the importance to continue advancing with its implementation, with a view to promoting stronger links between their administrations, academics, scientific communities, students and people.
The EU and the GCC also share common positions on a number of regional and global issues.
The joint communique voiced support for the UN efforts to finalize the issue of the maintenance of the international border posts between Iraq and Kuwait, for the return of Kuwaiti prisoners and nationals of other countries or their remains, as well as the return of Kuwaiti property including its national archive.
The two sides “urged Iran to play a constructive role in the region and to cease interfering in the internal affairs of GCC Member States and other countries in the region.”
The EU and the GCC reaffirmed their shared position that a just, comprehensive and lasting peace in the Middle East is vital for international peace and security and expressed their continued support of the Arab Peace Initiative.
Regarding the EU-GCC Free Trade Agreement, the communique reiterated their intention to continue consultations with a view to conclude the FTA as soon as possible.
Observers, however, note that media is one sector that is lacking in EU-GCC cooperation and which needs to be boosted by arranging more media exchanges and gatherings between the two sides.