The European Union has never been among the primary actors in the Middle East and North Africa. Due to strategic deficiencies, institutional shortcomings, and the tension between the common foreign and security policy and the individual foreign policy of member states, the EU has yet to transform its economic weight into leverage and influence. This is especially true for the Gulf, a region where the EU lacks strategic vision and is for the most part a free rider, as Gulf states prioritize relations with the United States, post-Brexit Great Britain, and even Russia and China.
Nevertheless, a new momentum can come from an unexpected place – the green transition, a series of actions toward reaching a more sustainable and climate-neutral economic structure. While the green transition is not in the realm of geopolitics, the implementation of some of its policies will surely have profound effects on international political and economic relations. One of these could be the evolution of a more coherent European foreign policy strategy toward the MENA region and the realization of the growing importance of Gulf Cooperation Council states. If certain conditions are met, the green transition could revitalize the European presence in the region and provide the single strategic framework the EU badly needs.
While the EU likes to see itself as an economic and normative superpower, its practical behavior in the MENA region is better characterized as multilevel strategical confusion. First, there is huge tension between the EU’s interest in presenting itself as a “force for good” and the practical actions the EU and its member states take in the broader region. This is not merely an understandable difference between rhetoric and practice but rather the inability to reconcile various viewpoints. In EU-MENA relations, this confusion manifests in the contradictions between the “long-term reformist agenda” of the EU and pursuing short-term security and economic interests.
Second, the various EU programs involving the MENA region are not encompassed under a coherent framework in terms of aims, tools, and partnerships. As Richard Youngs explained, there are at least five cognitive structures in which the EU (and its member states) think about their southern neighborhood. While some elements can be complementary, in practice, the differences are more visible, undermining not just the strategic coherence of the EU but its credibility as well.
Third, strategically, the EU does not view the Middle East and North Africa as a single region. The EU defines its role in international relations on two levels – its direct neighborhood, which is constituted as the Mediterranean to the south, and on the global level.
One of the main victims of this approach is EU-Gulf relations. As the region falls outside the direct neighborhood of the EU, it remains in a blind spot. The importance of Gulf states is mostly noticed if they intervene in the Mediterranean region (as in the case of Libya) or if they become objects or subjects of global politics. This is one reason why important documents such as the Global Strategy of the EU overemphasize the issues of nonproliferation and overlook many key developments taking place in the Gulf.
While economic and energy interests connect the EU with the GCC, that is not enough basis for profound interregional cooperation. On the one hand, member states frame relationship building with Gulf states as a competition, depriving the EU of the ability to act as a unified actor. National and business interests undermine joint EU-GCC projects such as reaching a free trade agreement, a promise left unfulfilled for decades. On the other, questions related to the energy market are dealt with on another level, through the institutionalized Energy Dialogue with OPEC.
The Opportunity of Green Realism
The green transition is certain to affect the confused strategy of the EU, though it is not yet clear exactly how. The EU is playing a dual role in the green transition: As a regulatory body, it helps its member states to reach their climate-neutrality pledges (e.g., through the European Green Deal), and it fosters multilateral green cooperation in world politics and provides incentives for external partners to introduce their own national action plans. While the latter is a direct foreign policy initiative, the former also has geopolitical ramifications, primarily through the changes of the external trade structure of the EU by decreasing the dominating role of nonrenewables.
Putting the green transition on the foreign policy agenda can go two ways. On the one hand, it is possible that it will only mean the introduction of an additional layer contributing to the cacophony of priorities and interests. Requiring its partners to adopt national green programs, the EU would just add another item on the already long list of normative expectations, the complete realization of which would remain unrealistic in the Middle East. Forcing the green agenda on others, the EU could easily end up only incentivizing the practice of green washing (rebranding existing policies as environmentally friendly). This scenario would certainly mean the continuation of the European tradition of criticizing the Gulf states without any meaningful effect (other than undermining mutual trust).
On the other hand, the green transition can have a positive effect on the EU’s strategic thinking. If this portfolio is prioritized over other short-term political and economic interests, it could help to disentangle the existing strategic dilemmas that cripple the EU. By realizing that the EU might be more influential and successful in promoting the green transition than democratic norms, clearer priorities could be established for cooperation. The green transition would need to be considered as an interest-driven policy rather than a normative condition, thus harmonizing the green transition and climate security with realpolitik. This way of thinking could help also in creating coherence and better the image of the EU as a partner with clear priorities.
Reframing EU-GCC Relations
This “green realism” approach would not just pave the way for a unified structure for dealing with the region but could create a momentum for EU-GCC relations and bolster energy trade. It might seem that cutting back European oil imports would harm the interests of oil-exporting Gulf states but in practice, that would not cause a big disruption as the Gulf countries are not reliant on exporting fossil fuels to the EU. The damage would probably be much bigger in the case of, for instance, Libya or Algeria who rely more on exporting oil to the EU. In the intermediate term, some Gulf countries may be able to edge out competitors with the evolving regulations as the costs of production of Gulf oil and its carbon footprint, already lower than in many other countries, continue to decrease. Moreover, it seems that European demand for natural gas will at least temporarily grow during the transition period, which could help Gulf gas producers.
There are some economic opportunities associated with the green transition as well. Gulf states have a favorable geographic location for solar irradiation, and they plan to invest heavily in solar power. The possibility to export to the EU could make such investments even more profitable. In addition, the EU can invest in developing the Gulf solar and wind energy sector, the hydrogen sector, and regional interconnectivity of electric grids. Cooperation can be conducted with the help of various existing frameworks, e.g., the EU-GCC Clean Energy Technology Network or the EU-GCC Inconet initiative (or, indirectly, in the United Nations-led Clean Development Mechanism).
Prioritizing the green agenda can also help move away from the frustrated aim of reaching a free trade agreement. This goal is currently unrealistic for several reasons, and leaving it on the agenda only hampers cooperation in other sectors. Turning green can help move beyond this effort to new opportunities while avoiding the appearance of having given up on an objective previously held as essential for the two sides.
A New Agenda for European Strategy?
Turning the focus to green realism could have positive spillover effects in other policies. As environmental consciousness is getting stronger in Europe, so are green parties (most recently in Germany) whose foreign policy priorities will probably contribute to shaping the EU’s MENA policy. Ideas like the de-militarization of foreign policy, reliance on multilateral cooperation, positive neutrality in regional conflicts, and abandoning free trade will probably be more prominent in European foreign policy agendas. While some of these priorities could caus problems in EU-GCC relations (especially in terms of arms trade), others could open new opportunities. For instance, there is potential in connecting European mediation and facilitation efforts with those conducted by Gulf states. The two sides can share their experience and coordinate their activities in regional conflicts more profoundly, a development that would be welcomed by both Gulf rulers and European green parties.
There could be many other scenarios between the continued state of strategic confusion and green realism, and truth be told, signs are indicating that the latter solution is not the most likely one, particularly given that many European actors do not feel the incentive to change the status quo. Nevertheless, European decision makers and practitioners should not miss the foreign policy opportunities arising from the green transition, even if their realization is not easy.