Security challenges to spur greater EU-GCC cooperation
Amid security issues related to the Ukraine crisis, Afghanistan, Middle Eastern conflicts and US-China rivalry, relations between the EU and the Gulf Cooperation Council have taken on a security component that is not clearly defined.
In May, the EU adopted a “Strategic Partnership with the Gulf,” aiming to broaden and deepen cooperation between these two significant regional organizations with a clear focus on economic, energy, security and institutional relations. This came amid the Russian aggravation in Ukraine and declining US influence throughout the region.
The EU’s Gulf strategic partnership strategy was read as an autonomous statement, aiming to establish a new baseline for cooperation in the face of a series of major systemic security challenges. In this regard, the EU pledged to work more closely with the GCC on global security threats and to play a greater political and security role in the Gulf.
EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell met with GCC foreign ministers on the sidelines of this month’s 77th session of the UN General Assembly in New York. Following the meeting, Borrell announced that officials in Brussels expected the first EU special envoy for the Gulf to be appointed by the end of the year with the aim of strengthening relations, including in the fields of energy and international assistance.
There have been intense discussions among EU and Gulf officials and experts over the security dimension of the EU-GCC relationship. Two developments have strengthened the prospects for closer security ties between the two blocs. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine forced the leaders of EU states to confront a distasteful reality, which is that they had neglected their own security for so long. Their overreliance on US protection has had a catastrophic effect on the bloc’s security. Secondly, the way in which the US withdrew from Afghanistan forced the GCC leaders to once again question Washington’s security commitments in the Gulf.
However, this is not to say that Gulf countries can replace the US security umbrella with any other actor. Although America’s involvement has been declining in the past few years, it still has more than 13,000 troops and large military bases in the Gulf. It also continues to play a key role in a number of security missions. However, despite its presence, the US’ pivot to Asia-Pacific pushes the EU and GCC to take some of the tasks in hand. This actually offers them room for further engagement on the security front.
Two developments have strengthened the prospects for closer security ties between the two blocs
There has long been a debate over European strategic autonomy, under which Europe aims to build its own defense capabilities. For some, this debate is a polarized one, while for others it is unrealistic. This topic has been raised on several occasions in the EU-GCC discussions, but there is still no clear understanding from the Gulf side on what the EU means by strategic autonomy and what purposes it will serve.
For example, one of the questions raised is over the prospect of the EU developing its own military force. There is a debate on whether the EU’s establishment of its own military force would change its “peaceful actor” image in the Gulf and the broader Middle East. The EU has, for decades, acted as a soft power force, focusing mainly on peacekeeping, mediation and diplomacy. It was the US that used to take care of European security concerns and involve its military in regional crises.
An independent EU military force may change how the Gulf views EU states, but many believe that a stronger role for the EU as a security provider or partner in the Gulf has a rationale. Varying degrees of bilateral relations have been established among members of the two blocs, in particular in the area of defense. Competition among the members of each bloc have led to bilateral commitments, rather than multilateral ties based on the EU-GCC framework. France, Germany and Greece are among the EU member states that are involved in bilateral defense cooperation with the GCC states. From the Gulf perspective, these bilateral relationships are viewed as being more effective than a collective approach.
Meanwhile, like the EU nations, Gulf states have realized that they will also eventually need to enhance their strategic autonomy. In order to achieve this autonomy, they must focus on developing their own military capabilities and diversifying their alliances with several actors, in particular the UK, France, Greece, Germany and even Russia.
Achieving strategic autonomy will take a long time and considerable resources, but it is a necessity in the face of growing security challenges. At the same time, an EU military’s utility and feasibility are also likely to be debated. However, it is crystal clear that EU-GCC security cooperation is going ahead.
Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz.