There is a “common desire to further intensify EU-Saudi Arabia cooperation,” EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell told Arab News
RIYAD: An aeronautical engineer by training, economist and professor of mathematics, Josep Borrell entered politics in the 1970s during Spain’s turbulent transition to democracy.
Before being appointed High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs in December 2019, he held several ministerial positions in the socialist governments of Felipe Gonzales. In a blog post published Thursday, Borrell described his visit to Riyadh, with stops in Doha and Abu Dhabi, as an opportunity to explore the response to “significant political change” in “a dynamic region” and ” develop new forms of cooperation “between the EU and the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Below is the full transcript of an interview he gave to Arab News the day before his visit.
Q: Can you tell us about the main topics on the agenda of your visit to the GCC and, in particular, your meetings with the Saudi leadership?
A: Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are very important partners for the EU. I have already met or spoken to many of my Gulf counterparts, but this is my first visit to the region as a high representative of the EU.
My main objective is to advance the EU’s strategic cooperation with Gulf partners on global, regional and bilateral issues of common interest. This includes climate change, but also global access to vaccines and support for the âgreen economyâ.
I would also like to underline the EU’s unwavering support for the ongoing normalization of relations within the Gulf family after a split that lasted three long years and ended last January at the AlUla summit.
The GCC is one of our oldest partners. After more than 30 years of EU-GCC partnership, we should take advantage of the current momentum to give our cooperation a more strategic orientation.
In my meetings with Gulf partners in New York last week on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, I shared my intention to convene a joint ministerial-level cooperation council early next year – during the Saudi presidency of the GCC.
My meetings in Riyadh will be an essential part of my visit. Saudi Arabia is an important player on the global and multilateral stage, and I hope that its strong commitments at the next COP26 will inspire other energy producers.
We will discuss how best to support the domestic transformation and economic diversification of Saudi Arabia, in line with the objectives of Vision 2030 and with the involvement of European companies.
With Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud, I intend to sign a cooperation agreement which reflects our mutual wish to further intensify our cooperation, and will be a useful instrument to do so.
Q: You recently met Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in New York. What assurances did he give you about Iran’s compliance with the 2015 nuclear pact?
A: As the Coordinator of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), I have always been clear: we must return to full implementation of the agreement, which means a return of the United States to the agreement with the lifting of related US sanctions and full compliance with its nuclear commitments.
The nuclear deal remains a key security achievement. Without him, Iran could already have developed nuclear weapons, adding yet another source of instability to the region.
Obviously, I am concerned about the negative trajectory of Iranian nuclear activities. That is why it is crucial to resume negotiations in Vienna as soon as possible and where we left off on June 20.
My message to Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian in New York was simple: diplomacy is the solution; let us return to Vienna without delay.
Q: Do you have the feeling that the new Iranian government, despite its hard-line reputation, wants to improve its relations with its Arab Gulf neighbors as well as with the West?
A: Diplomacy offers the only real way to settle the problems open in the Gulf and between neighbors. I cannot speak for the intentions of other governments, but I have noted more dialogue between countries in the region.
The Baghdad conference (for cooperation and partnership) on August 28 and bilateral talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran are examples of this. These are welcome developments and I was happy to participate in the New York conference follow-up event recently.
The EU stands ready to help the countries of the Gulf region to build a shared sense of security and cooperation. In this sense, the nuclear deal (Iran) is also crucial.
I remain convinced that if we manage to preserve the JCPOA and ensure its full implementation, it can become a springboard for addressing other common concerns, especially those related to regional security.
Q: AUKUS – the recently formed trilateral security pact between Australia, the UK and the US – has been poorly received by some in the EU. How could it have been better managed?
A: There has been a clear disappointment in Europe as to the way this issue has been handled. We are friends and allies. And friends and allies talk to each other.
Since the announcement of AUKUS, we have spoken with our American partners. I had a good meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken last month in New York.
We now consider this situation to be clarified. Proof of this is the joint statement between President (French) (Emmanuel) Macron and US President (Joe) Biden, in which the United States acknowledged that the situation would have benefited from open consultations among allies.
We must now move forward. The EU and the US cannot afford to be divided. We are unique partners working side by side on many important global topics such as health and climate change, working for our democracies.
These recent events also clearly underline the strength of European unity and remind us once again of the need to reflect on how to build, strengthen and advance European strategic autonomy.
Europe must be more united in matters of security and defense. If the European Union pooled its defense capabilities and avoided overlaps, we would be much more effective in many global crises.
Q: The chaotic military withdrawal from Afghanistan has created a picture of the West as uncoordinated, divided and unreliable. Do you think the solution lies in higher European defense spending instead of continuing to depend on American firepower?
A: It is not a question of choosing one or the other, but certainly Afghanistan has shown vividly that deficiencies in the EU’s ability to act autonomously come at a price.
I want to be clear: acting autonomously does not mean moving away from our transatlantic partnership. On the contrary, a stronger European Union in defense means a stronger partner for the United States and for NATO. It means being more able to act with partners where possible, and alone if necessary if our interests and values ââare at stake. The only way forward is to join forces and not only build our capacities, but also our will to act.
This means strengthening our ability to respond to hybrid challenges, filling key capability gaps, including logistics transport, increasing readiness through joint military training, and developing new tools.
We have been discussing these kinds of proposals for many years. I hope that, coupled with recent developments, this will create a sufficient common understanding of the challenges and threats we face to mobilize the common will of Member States.
Q: You said that there is still “a strong demand and a pressing need for Europe to express itself and to support its positions with the instruments and forms of leverage at our disposal”. Has such an approach worked in Libya, for example? Will it work with the Taliban?
A: Libya and Afghanistan are very different. Regarding Libya, the EU and its member states agree on the need to hold elections on 24 December and implement the ceasefire agreement, including the withdrawal of all foreign forces . To this end, we have aligned a number of instruments, including technical support for elections and civilian missions in support of the ceasefire agreement and for the implementation of the embargo on arms.
Afghanistan stands at a crossroads after decades of conflict. We must provide strong support to the Afghan people, including those in the region. EU countries have set clear conditions that will determine the level of engagement with the Taliban. Taliban talks are needed to avert a humanitarian tragedy and help protect vulnerable people.
These talks do not equal recognition. It will be an operational engagement and our engagement will depend on the behavior of this interim government.
Q: Do you think the EU and the GCC are more or less on the same page on the main current issues in the Middle East and Central Asia – Iran and refugees from the Middle East? in Yemen and Afghanistan?
A: I think we are all interested in the stability, security and well-being of our own citizens and our neighbors. This should be a common goal of all our efforts and cooperation.
Regarding Yemen, the international community, including the GCC, is unanimous: we want to see the end of the fighting and the suffering of the Yemeni people. I will fully commit to Yemen during my visit (to Riyadh).
Regarding Afghanistan, there is a broad international consensus that the country cannot become an exporter of instability, terrorism and migratory flows. And it is the countries of the region that are the first to be affected by any negative spillover of the situation (in Afghanistan).
This is why the EU tries to engage and coordinate its engagement and activities with partners in the affected regions. Great challenges can only be solved effectively and sustainably through joint efforts.