There is (no) room for democracy: 40 years of EU-GCC relations

, by Francesco Teruggi

There is (no) room for democracy: 40 years of EU-GCC relations
Democracy. Credit: Sara, Creative Commons

While discourses on human rights and democracy are now common in Europe, the European project started as an economic partnership with an extremely limited foreign policy dimension. In 1970 the European Political Cooperation (EPC) was created with the ambitious goal of forging a common foreign policy and in 1973 the Document on the European Identity (DEI) affirmed the European determination “to defend the principles of representative democracy (…) and of respect for human rights”. It was not until 1986, however, that the European Communities ratified the EPC and the doctrine enshrined in the DEI by signing the Single European Act (SEA). Yet, these decades were characterized by a “passive” idea of defending democracy.

What does democracy mean for the European Union (EU)?

It was, in fact, with the end of the Cold War that Europe actively engaged in promoting democracy and human rights. The 1992 Maastricht Treaty not only established the European Union (EU), but also the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) as the successor of EPC, later reinforced by the 1994 European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR). From the mid-‘90s onwards the issue of promoting democracy, notably in the Mediterranean basin, has gone through different phases, from a push for the democracy agenda in line with the 1995 Barcelona Process and the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP), as well as the 2004 European Neighborhood Policy, to a retrenchment with the establishment in 2008 of the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) that sidelined any provisions related to political reform. According to Huber (2015), the concept of democracy promoted by the EU is hinged upon three pillars: human rights, rule of law and participative elections. Boubakri (2009) underlined that the European idea of democracy is also related to a transparent public administration, accountability and empowered civil society. Historically, the EU used mainly three means to promote democracy: democratic assistance; positive conditionality, promising benefits to foreign actors as a reward for democratic development; and negative conditionality, threatening to reduce aid flows or to impose sanctions in case of lack of reforms. Amidst these ups-and-downs, however, democracy promotion has maintained a certain degree of consistency over time. On the other hand, this issue has often been neglected when it comes to countries in the Persian Gulf.

The EU and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC): multilateral entities, bilateral relations, limited democracy

The GCC is an intergovernmental political and economic union comprising six countries, namely Bahrein, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Established in 1981, the GCC signed a Cooperation Agreement with the will-be EU in 1988, which entered into force in 1989. The expected outcome of the Agreement was the conclusion of a Free Trade Agreement (FTA), whose negotiations began in 1990 but soon stalled due disagreement over a human rights clause. After several attempts to revive them, discussions finally collapsed in 2008 after the GCC’s unilateral decision to withdraw. EU’s leverage to revive negotiations was further compounded by the 2008/2009 financial crisis, which triggered intra-EU competition over limited Gulf economic resources. Furthermore, the issue of democratic governance has been systematically excluded from political forums, such as the annual EU-GCC Joint Council, and ministerial meetings.

Against this backdrop, there are several factors that explain why democracy and human rights have not been at the core of the EU-GCC relation. On the European side, there are three elements at stake. First, EU’s policies of promotion of democracy show a lack of clarity and consistency. Human rights-related discourses are in fact stronger when it comes to weaker countries. On the other hand, EU’s democratization rhetoric remains declaratory vis-à-vis more powerful countries, when idealism succumbs to realism. Secondly, Gulf States and European countries prioritized bilateral relations hinged upon investments, security-related deals and trade agreements, setting aside political dossiers. While the EU stated several times that human rights records in the Gulf remain dismal, these concerns have been overshadowed by national interests. Moreover, European countries competed against each other to develop remunerative business deals with Gulf States, undermining the forging of a common European positions. For example, when Germany criticized Saudi Arabia’s role in Yemen in 2017, Riyadh responded by suspending ongoing economic contracts, reducing German exports by 5 percent. Thus, Germany retreated in order to resume economic cooperation. Other countries, such as the UK and France, not only refrained from criticizing Gulf States, but they actively sided with some of them. As brilliantly noted by Cinzia Bianco, “competitive European bilateralism has severely undermined efforts to formulate a common European policy on the region”. Finally, the EU tends to propose its own version of democracy in a technocratic way without considering local peculiarities and multifaceted cultural and religious aspects.

Turning to the GCC, there are four pertinent points. First, the GCC is far from being an integrated institution. In fact, when it comes to strategic issues, including foreign policy and governance, each country acts on its own. Moreover, rifts within the GCC have further compounded any attempt to deal comprehensively with it, reinforcing bilateral ties with certain European countries. Second, the GCC opposed any form of foreign interference when it comes to domestic governance. Thus, European countries acting alone lost leverage and refrained from promoting democracy in order to preserve cooperation in the energy, security and economic domain. Third, some Gulf countries, notably the UAE, sought to whitewash their image by strengthening their soft power. In this endeavor, State-sponsored mass-media, cultural activities and religious initiatives succeeded in conveying a message of reform, appealing mainly to Western audiences. Finally, some countries, in particular the UAE and Saudi Arabia, were caught off-guard by the emergence of the Arab Spring. Since 2011, they have been championing counter-revolutionary efforts, rolling back the quest for political participation. In doing so, they have also been very cautious in weakening (even more) the potential roots of activism within their own country, thus reinforcing their regime.

What’s next?

The possibility of any EU-sponsored democratic change in the GCC at the moment is none. Nevertheless, there are at least three variables that may influence this process. First, the EU should approach the GCC as a solid block, rather than a group of countries driven by their own competing interests. Moreover, the EU should better address internal politics in the Gulf, drawing upon the recent resetting of ties between Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrein, and Qatar. Against this backdrop, cementing relations with regional facilitators, like Oman and Kuwait, is essential. This would also allow the EU to become a relevant actor in the broader Middle East, where some Gulf countries are increasingly proactive. Second, Gulf countries perfectly fit the rentier state model, where revenues are derived from the selling of natural resources. The decrease of oil prices, combined with the economic impact of the pandemic and the plausible imposition of new taxes, can weaken Gulf monarchies. Two caveats, however, must be underlined. First of all, a fall of oil revenues is not directly linked to democratic change. Second, historically, some Gulf countries, in particular Saudi Arabia, have experienced political crises when oil revenues were peaking, rather than declining. Finally, any effort to engage with the GCC, whether on the political or the economic front, must consider the historic ties that the region has with both the UK and the US. Coordination, rather than competition, with London and Washington may thus increase EU’s leverage.

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