Relations between EU and UAE hold huge untapped potential, says envoy Lucie Berger

In a wide-ranging interview with The National to commemorate Europe Day on Thursday, EU ambassador says possibilities for co-operation extend to many spheres

Lucie Berger, the EU ambassador to the UAE. Victor Besa / The National
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The relationship between the EU and the UAE holds vast untapped potential, the bloc's ambassador to the Emirates has said.

Lucie Berger said the possibilities for co-operation were “so big" and she wants to achieve “tangible results” during her tenure.

In a wide-ranging interview with The National to commemorate Europe Day on Thursday, Ms Berger reflected on issues from Gaza to climate change and outlined her priorities for her time here as envoy.

"It is a privilege to be here," said Ms Berger. "The potential for collaboration is so big and I'm really excited to spend hopefully four years and ... leave some tangible results behind."

If we are to build a stable and sustainable relationship with Iran, we have to rely on the knowledge and experience of the Gulf countries
Lucie Berger

The UAE is the EU's largest export destination and investment partner in the Middle East and North Africa region. The volume of bilateral trade in goods last year reached €55 billion ($59.2 billion), while trade in services accounted for €20 billion.

She said she was committed to bolstering this strong relationship but also wanted to promote the image of the EU beyond it.

“The EU has so much more to offer,” she said. “I would like to build the image of the EU as an important and reliable partner in areas such as climate, sustainable energy, digitalisation, humanitarian aid and development, but also security and regional stability.”

The EU-GCC free trade deal is still on the table and Ms Berger said there was still a “lot of willingness” to explore unblocking the deal at a regional level and "shifts in the region" had been noted.

Exploratory talks could take place by the summer but the framework would have to be modernised to consider the “completely different” economy of 2024.

“We also want to explore the bilateral relationship with the UAE,” said Ms Berger. “The bilateral relationship can be complementary to a regional agreement.”

She highlighted the EU’s strategic partnership with the Gulf that was launched in 2022 and said the EU would be keen on “something really comprehensive” that includes trade but also climate, sustainable energy, AI, security and political dialogue.

Could the EU in theory sign a deal with the UAE outside of any wider GCC agreement?

“I personally think that we could explore it even if there is a negotiation of a GCC free trade agreement,” she said, stating these decisions are ultimately in the hands of the member states.

Gaza aid

Turning to Gaza, Ms Berger praised the UAE's “impressive” role in delivering humanitarian aid.

“It is an example for many to follow,” she said. “What I see is that we [EU and UAE] have become natural partners in delivering humanitarian aid to Gaza." She said she wants to see this grow and perhaps extend to other regions.

The UN and other aid organisations say the situation in Gaza is dire amid Israeli restrictions and a possible offensive on Rafah.

Ms Berger said it was her understanding there was an agreement to resume the delivery of vital aid through the maritime corridor and the World Central Kitchen – one of the main suppliers that only resumed work in Gaza last week less than a month after seven aid workers were killed – intends to be part of it.

“I think we could see some deliveries in the near future. This is really great news but it is in no way to replace land crossings.”

Ms Berger said she was keen for the EU and the UAE to collaborate more broadly to bring “peace and stability” not only to Gaza but to other conflict zones.

The EU has newly announced $1 billion in aid to Lebanon and Ms Berger said the dramatic situation in the Middle East is a stark reminder that so-called frozen or low intensity conflicts “risk exploding sooner or later in intense violence if not meaningfully settled”.

Climate change has been a major part of Ms Berger's career, with her most recent role overseeing all trade negotiations related to climate action and implementation of climate measures in trade policy at the European Commission. Can the energy from Cop28 continue?

“Definitely,” she said. "The momentum is there to stay."

The EU and the UAE, she said, could work together to deliver finance outcomes at Cop29 in Azerbaijan that really deliver.

Regarding perceptions of the EU abroad, Ms Berger said the “EU has changed my life completely.” From the Czech Republic, she said was able to study abroad and pursue a career as a diplomat because of the opportunities from the EU membership process that were not available to those older than her.

She said Europeans “like to criticise things, which is part of our process of improving things” but there is so much that is taken for granted.

Far-right challenges

Some have speculated there could be a surge in support for far-right groups in the June elections for the EU Parliament on the back of protests against immigration.

In April European politicians approved a revamped migration system that aims to tackle this. But she said she is not too concerned about the bloc’s future.

“The politicians change. Sometimes there are some narratives that appear and disappear," she said.

"But at the end of the day, we continue going on this more or less same trajectory.”

This year also marks a decade since the EU’s diplomatic presence in the UAE started as the EU continues to boost its ties in the country.

When asked if the EU and UAE understand each other, she said "yes" but added there is always scope to communicate better particularly in getting the message across that the 27-member bloc is not only about trade.

“We're seen as complicated and difficult to navigate and to be fair, we could do much better in communicating about our added value," she said.

President Sheikh Mohamed meets EU's Ursula von der Leyen

President Sheikh Mohamed meets EU's Ursula von der Leyen

Ms Berger arrived in the UAE in September and, while she expected it to be busy, she has found the intensity of the job is on “another level". Is there one area in which she would really like to make a difference?

“Peace and regional stability are … so needed.

“We're a peace project, a very successful peace project,” she said, regarding the EU and how it managed to rebuild in the wake of the Second World War.

“We don't talk about it enough [but] that's a huge success story.”

She highlighted the EU’s maritime mission organised to address growing instability in the Red Sea as an example of the bloc’s commitment to regional peace and security.

“There is still a lot of ‘let's wait and see' kind of approach because it's an EU operation,” she said. “I think a lot comes down to communicating and being very clear where the added value is.”

Turning to Iran, Ms Berger said there was a growing concern regionally and globally about Iran’s role despite the EU’s support of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly known as the 2015 nuclear deal, between Iran and world powers that the US pulled out of three years later. But the EU would play its part to try to bring about regional stability.

“If we are to build a stable and sustainable relationship with Iran, we have to rely on the knowledge and experience of the Gulf countries.”

The path ahead, then, is filled with potential despite the all-consuming nature of the job that frequently sees her in the office all day, constantly at airports, along with the small matter of caring for her young daughter.

“I choose jobs that I'm very passionate about.”

But she said she must try to switch off for her daughter at times.

“I bring my daughter sometimes to the receptions,” she said, with a chuckle.

“She is very popular. So, I find these small tricks, every now and then, that make it workable [to bring my daughter to official events].”

Updated: May 09, 2024, 4:37 PM