NEW STRATEGY, NEW DILEMMA

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By Stasa Salacanin

Turbulent developments in Europe in 2016, starting with the surprising outcome of the British referendum and the rise of populist Eurosceptic movements, completely overshadowed other important happenings in the Union, such as the announcement of the much-anticipated Global Strategy for the EU’s Foreign and Security Policy (EUGS). What does all of this mean for the GCC countries? 

Despite the fact that Brexit shook the very foundations of the Union, the EU High Representative Federica Mogherini presented the document just several days after the British decision to leave the EU, sending a symbolic message that she is sticking to her plan and showing that the EU remains united, functional and determined to follow its set agenda. However, this document, prepared and written before the British referendum, is going to be seriously challenged by the EU’s new reality, calling into question its full implementation and its realistic reach.

“While the EU’s vital interests and key priorities will not change because of the UK’s future departure, the Community’s capacities to deliver on its ambitions certainly will.” 

Balazs Ujvari, Research Fellow at the Royal Institute for International Relations at the European Policy Centre (EPC)

“While the EU’s vital interests and key priorities will not change because of the UK’s future departure, the Community’s capacities to deliver on its ambitions certainly will,” Balazs Ujvari, Research Fellow at the Royal Institute for International Relations at the European Policy Centre (EPC) in Brussels, told Qatar Today. At this point it is still a great unknown how seriously the EU will be affected by the exit of one of its key states – a permanent member of the UN’s Security Council with vast military and foreign affairs potential.

But even without Brexit, foreign policy has been the weakest spot of the EU integration. Zbigniew Brzezinski, a famous geostrategist and former advisor to US presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter, once described Europe as “too passive regarding international security. Too self-satisfied, it acts as if its central political goal is to become the world’s most comfortable retirement home.” Therefore, many say that it would actually be a great surprise if the new strategy brings any major policy impact.

But to be fair, the new EU global strategy is more realistic and less idealistic than its previous one, adopted in 2003. Ujvari emphasises five priority objectives the new strategy identifies to be pursued collectively by the 28 members so as to secure their joint interests: (1) the security of the Union itself; (2) the stability of the EU’s neighbourhood; (3) addressing conflicts and crises; (4) cooperative regional orders; and (5) effective global governance. According to him, three of the above objectives are directly related to the Middle East.

EUGS and the Middle East

Andrea Frontini, a Policy Analyst at the European Policy Centre

The EUGS mentions the Middle East on many occasions, and it is undeniable that it considers the region a key strategic hotspot, Andrea Frontini, a Policy Analyst at the European Policy Centre, points out. “Although the EU’s performance in the region has – due to a ‘lethal mix’ of intra-European diplomatic rivalries – often been disappointing, showing limited capacities of the EU to deal with its explosive Middle-Eastern neighbourhood, EUGS could still contribute to a more targeted, realistic and flexible EU engagement in the region,” he told our magazine.

He believes we can expect a smarter, more focussed and ultimately more political involvement by the EU in the region in the near future, provided that EUGS’s main predications are put into proper practice, and that Member States – some of which remain considerable diplomatic and security players in the wider Middle East region – truly decide to speak and act with more unity and greater coordination.

“As for the EU-Gulf/GCC relations, there is growing awareness in the EU, including in its top leadership, that the two sides face a number of considerable common challenges, including terrorism and radicalisation, state collapse across the Middle East, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, maritime piracy, regional peacemaking, energy and socio-economic transition, and tackling the manifold effects of climate change,” Frontini continued.

But Ujvari thinks that the EU will face a great challenge in seeking to promote the resilience of its neighbours: while the EUGS clearly lowers the EU’s ambition of democratisation, it will not – and should not – engage in action resulting in the propping up of undemocratic regimes. When facing this dilemma, EU strategy planners should perhaps have in mind Henry’s Kissinger thought that “a country that demands moral perfection in its foreign policy will achieve neither perfection nor security.”

On the other hand, it is evident that security and defence issues are a matter of urgency and the first priority of the EU’s external action. New strategy is very ambitious when it comes to military implications, saying that it “should enable the EU to act autonomously” and “undertake actions in cooperation with NATO.” The recent opening of the NATO Regional Centre in Kuwait, which represents a nucleus for cooperation between NATO and the GCC especially in the war against terrorism, could be understood as one step toward this vision.

However, there is also an evident lack of diplomatic ambition when it comes to dealing with conflicts and crises. “The emphasis appears to be placed on the local level (striking ceasefire), somewhat neglecting diplomatic efforts necessary to end a conflict. While the EUGS sets out to support peace agreements resulting from cross-party diplomatic talks, it foresees little if any leading role for the EU in driving such negotiations,” Ujvari added.

But if the EU focuses on some niche areas where it can make a difference in the region (including trade, development aid and humanitarian assistance, migration, and security sector reform) there would be concrete chances for the EU to become one of the stabilising players in the Middle East, according to Frontini.

Less multilateral and more bilateral relations

The new strategy declares a willingness to pursue balanced engagement in the Gulf, which basically calls for strengthening cooperation with the GCC while gradually engaging with Iran, building on the E3+3 nuclear deal. This initiative will be ever more relevant and subjected to challenges from new US President Trump, who threatened to scrap the Iran deal.

Also, launching parallel dialogues with the GCC and Iran is anything but an easy task and may prove very tricky. However, this is still an opportunity for stronger Euro-Arab political dialogue and cooperation if the League of Arab States is willing to (or is allowed to) partner with the EU in areas of common interest. But there are no grandiose plans about transformation of the region, probably to avoid raising expectations while failing to deliver once again.

There is a general belief that the EU will be preoccupied with the implications of the Brexit vote, which may delay implementation of the EUGS. As a consequence, this may lead to less multilateralism and more bilateral relations between EU members and GCC states. “It is unquestionable that in areas like commercial promotion, political relations and defence cooperation, several EU Member States prefer ‘to go it alone’ in the Gulf,” Frontini noted.  But this is something that Qatar is good at, so we may expect further strengthening of bilateral relations with key EU countries, such as France and Germany.

However, the collective weight of the EU, and the benefits of using it to deal with “macro issues” like trade and investment, climate change, migration, “soft security” (including cyber and piracy, but also counter-terrorism and violent extremism) and others, remains significant. But the GCC-EU Free Trade Agreement negotiation, which in any case has not seen any improvement for many years now, may fall victim to Brexit.

“the EU is institutionally bound to apply conditionality (political dialogue and human rights) in trade deals with external trading partners. Granting the GCC an exception will create a precedent for other parties actually or potentially trading with the EU.”

Johann Weick, Lecturer and Analyst, GCC-EU relations, International trade relations, European policy

According to Johann Weick, Brussels-based lecturer on international trade relations and European policy and analyst on GCC-EU relations, “the EU is institutionally bound to apply conditionality (political dialogue and human rights) in trade deals with external trading partners. Granting the GCC an exception will create a precedent for other parties actually or potentially trading with the EU.”

Nevertheless, the GCC and EU already enjoy significant economic relations. The EU is the fourth largest export market while the EU is the GCC’s number one trading partner. Trade volumes between the two regions have almost doubled during the past decade and stood at slightly more than 155 billion euros in 2015. The European Union – which has seeks to lessen its dependency on Russian gas – is interested in accomplishing enhanced energy cooperation with the GCC states, Weick continued.

“However, the GCC states seem to have their reservations, apparently making the conclusion of the long-sought, yet persistently elusive commercial deal on free trade between the two regional blocs as a precondition for new or enhanced cooperation in other areas of mutual interest,” he told Qatar Today.

With absolutely no sign of a decisive GCC-EU trade negotiations re-engagement, it is logical that the GCC states seek to establish a closer relationship with Britain, a country with long-standing (friendship) ties, a globally credited financial centre (London) and more familiarity with the conflict-susceptible Gulf region than any other (current) EU member state, he concluded.