STRENGTHENING TIES

Sharjah 2015 | DIPLOMACY | FOCUS: EUROPEAN RELATIONS

Relations between the EU and the UAE have enjoyed a considerable boost in recent years, as evidenced by growing trade flows and several diplomatic initiatives, such as the establishment of an EU Delegation in Abu Dhabi in 2H2013.

Formal relations between the UAE and the European Union (EU) go back to 1988, when the EU signed a region-to-region relationship with the countries of the GCC, which includes the UAE. The EU-Gulf Cooperation Council Cooperation Agreement, as it was named, intended to strengthen stability in a region of strategic importance to the EU; facilitate political and economic relations; increase economic and technical cooperation; and broaden cooperation on energy, industry, trade and services, agriculture, fisheries, investment, science, technology, and environment. The agreement contained a commitment from both sides to enter into negotiations on a free trade agreement. While this free trade agreement may have been somewhat overambitious, and negotiations have yet to bear fruit, both sides have stated their commitment to reach a positive conclusion.

In the context of this agreement, trade flows between the EU and the UAE started picking up, and have recorded tremendous growth from €24.2 billion ($27.19 billion) in 2004 to €51 billion ($57.31 billion) in 2014. As a result, the UAE is the EU's 14th largest trade partner and the EU is the UAE's second trading partner, and the UAE has positioned itself on par with economic powerhouses such as South Korea and India as the EU's eight largest export partner, with exports reaching €42.7 billion ($47.98 billion) in 2014, while imports from the UAE to the EU amounted to €8.1 billion ($9.1 billion) in the same year. The UAE's exports predominantly consist of hydrocarbon products and metals, whereas the country's imports from the EU largely consists of machinery and transport equipment. Further testaments to the relations are the 150,000 EU citizens that permanently reside in the UAE and contribute to the nation's economy through their expertise and labor.

In an apparent attempt to bring political relations on the same level as economic relations, then High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Lady Catherine Ashton, decided to open a Delegation to the UAE in the second half of 2013 in order to bolster the EU's geostrategic interests in the region, and express the EU's commitment to increasing its ties with the Emirates. This delegation complements the embassies of 22 EU member states that were already present in the country.

A more recent initiative on the diplomatic front concerns the signing of short-stay visa waiver agreement between the EU and the UAE on May 6th, 2015, allowing EU citizens to travel to the UAE without a visa, and citizens of the UAE with diplomatic, special, service, or ordinary passports to travel without a visa to 34 EU countries that make up the Schengen area for stays of up to 90 days in any 180-day period. With over 1.6 million EU citizens travelling to the UAE every year, the visa waiver agreement could possibly boost this number exponentially.

After lagging behind the economic track somewhat, it seems that political relations have made a comeback recently, signaling efforts on behalf of the EU to consolidate the entire spectrum of bilateral relations with the UAE, as policymakers in Brussels have become increasingly aware that the UAE could fulfill a stabilizing role in a critical region. The Emiratis, on their part, see the advantages of closer political and economic cooperation with Europe, and it thus seems very likely that ties between the two will be strengthened even more in the future.