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EU-GCC relations enter new phase


EU-GCC relations enter new phase

By Nawab Khan

19 June 2010

(KUNA (Kuwait News Agency)) BRUSSELS — The European Union (EU) and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) last week celebrated 22 years of their relationship by launching a three-year Joint Action Programme (JAP) to move forward to stronger cooperation with confidence and optimism.

Kuwait’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Dr. Mohammad Sabah Al-Salem Al-Sabah, expressed the common buoyant mood of the occasion.

"This is a momentous event. Relations between the EU and GCC could not have been better," he told a press conference at the end of the 20th EU-GCC Joint Ministerial Council in Luxembourg last Monday.

Sheikh Dr. Mohammad chaired the meeting as Kuwait holds the current GCC Presidency.

It was in this tiny European country that the GCC-EU Cooperation Agreement was signed in 1988. The agreement came into force in 1990.

Analysts consider the endorsement of the JAP as a sign of very significant shift in ties between the 27-member European bloc and the six Arab states of the Gulf.

A joint communique released after the council meeting noted that the JAP "reflects a shared ambition to reinforce cooperation in a number of key strategic areas of mutual interest, including economic, financial and monetary cooperation ; investment, trade, energy and the environment, transport, industry, telecommunications and information technology, education and scientific research, and culture and mutual understanding." Some observers have been critical of the EU policy towards the GCC saying that Brussels has not given the priority or the importance that the Gulf region deserves.

As one British analyst commented , "the Gulf has long been something of a backwater of EU foreign policy. It has long appeared important but never really urgent in the eyes of European diplomats".

But the EU has now realized that in this era of globalization and an increasingly integrated world economy, regional groupings like the GCC are playing a significant and growing political and economic role which cannot be ignored.

The widespread concept in Europe of the Gulf as a mere energy supplier rather than the important geopolitical player is also changing.

EU officials acknowledge that Gulf states are playing an important role to establish peace in the Middle East with diplomatic moves such as the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002.

Moreover, the GCC’s ever-increasing influence in the wider Islamic world cannot be overlooked. Saudi Arabia is host to Islam’s two most holiest cities, Mecca and Medina.

The EU and the GCC have expressed their joint commitment to promote religious dialogue and protection of the values of tolerance, moderation and coexistence.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton who chaired the meeting on behalf of the EU stressed that "this meeting confirms aspirations from both sides to have more strategic relationship." Kuwait’s foreign minister voiced the cherished goal to translate words into action by saying that "this is not just an annual ritual but it is an event which produces results for the benefit of the two regions".

GCC Secretary-General Abdul Rahman Al-Attiyah underscored the shared importance of the JAP and urged acceleration of work to implement the action plan in the nearest future.

In so far as the much-talked about EU-GCC Free Trade Agreement (FTA) is concerned the communique noted that the two sides agreed to continue their consultations with a view to concluding the negotiations as soon as possible.

Much media spotlight has fallen on the FTA negotiations which are at present on hold after two decades of unsuccessful talks.

But the delay in reaching an FTA agreement is no obstacle in boosting cooperation and relations in other sectors.

"We continue our cooperation and consultations despite that we have not concluded the FTA. It is not a hurdle," the ambassador of Kuwait to the EU Nabeela al-Mulla rightly pointed out in a recent interview with KUNA.

Despite the FTA deadlock, trade between the EU and GCC is growing having rached nearly 90 billion euros in 2009.

However, media is one area where EU-GCC cooperation is very much lacking resulting in an information gap.

For the first time, a group of GCC-based journalists visited Brussels last week to get a first-hand information on how the complex EU institutions function.

A similar trip of Brussels-based journalists needs to be organized to the GCC headquarters.