European Council President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel, December 2019 (Photo: Nicole Mess via Shutterstock.com)
European Parliament urges boycott of G-20 in Saudi Arabia

On October 19, members of the European Parliament unveiled a petition to the leaders of the EU — Charles Michel and Ursula Von der Leyen, the presidents of the Council and Commission, respectively — not to attend the G-20 summit to be held in Saudi Arabia on November 21-22. 

Marie Arena, chair of the human rights sub-committee, and Marc Tarabella, vice-chair of the committee for relations with the Arabian Peninsula spearheaded a letter, signed by 65 MEPs, urging the EU leaders not to legitimize the oppressive Saudi regime with their presence, and downgrade their participation to a level of senior officials, if not withdraw altogether.  

This initiative mirrors similar efforts in the U.S. Congress and British parliament and  comes after the mayors of New York, Los Angeles, Paris, and London decided to pull out from the G-20 mayors’ meeting because of Saudi Arabia’s gross human rights record. The petition also reinforces the resolution the European Parliament adopted on October 8 with a similar call.

That landmark resolution, adopted with 413 votes, 233 abstentions, and only 49 votes against, was one of the strongest rebukes ever issued by the EU to the kingdom. While technically not binding, it sends a strong political message of disapproval of wide-ranging Saudi human rights abuses — from appalling treatment of Ethiopian migrants and continued imprisonment of women rights defenders, such as Loujain al-Hathloul, to the lack of accountability for the murder of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi and continued oppression of the Shia minority.

The letter’s text, accordingly, calls on EU governments to cease all export of surveillance technology and other equipment that can be used for internal repression, adding to the EP’s insistent calls to end arms sales to the Saudi regime that make the EU complicit in alleged war crimes in Yemen.

The resolution, adopted few days after the second anniversary of Khashoggi’s murder, also reiterated a call to introduce targeted sanctions against the Saudi officials involved, as part of a EU-wide human rights sanctions mechanism to be launched in coming weeks.

Yet the call to downgrade the EU representation at the G-20 summit in Saudi Arabia  was the politically most incisive — because of the potential immediate diplomatic repercussions it could have. While relations with the United States were always the big prize from the Saudi perspective, and more so with Donald Trump as the president, the EU is a significant diplomatic and trade partner for Saudi Arabia. Not only it is represented in the G-20 under its collective aegis, but also Germany, France, and Italy are its individual members.

European pullout or downgrade would be a blow to the Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, or MBS, the de-facto ruler of the kingdom, who sees the summit as a golden opportunity to showcase his much-vaunted reforms and himself as a modernizing, forward-looking leader. There is even speculation that the occasion would propel an abdication of the aging King Salman and a formal introduction of Mohammad Bin Salman to the world as a new king. If there were already not enough reasons for European leaders not to attend this summit, to bless with their presence a possible coronation of MBS would only add to their embarrassment.

Procedural rules allow European MPs to vote on separate measures within the October 8 resolution, and the fact that even more lawmakers voted specifically in favor of skipping the G-20 than for a resolution as a whole sent a strong signal not only to Riyadh, but also to Michel and Von der Leyen that anti-Saudi sentiment covered the entire political spectrum from the center-right to the left. The tiny minority that voted against the resolution represented the nationalist-populist and far right end of European politics: parties like Polish Law and Justice, Spanish Vox and the party of the notorious Dutch Islamophobe Geert Wilders. 

Both the main center-right bloc — European People’s Party (EPP), from which Von der Leyen hails, and the liberal Renew Europe, the political family of Michel, voted in favor of downgrading the EU G-20 presence. It must surely be relevant for mainstream EU politicians that the Saudi brand has become so toxic that only Eurosceptic, extremist forces are still openly embracing it.  

So far, there has been no indication from either Michel or Von der Leyen on their plans regarding the G-20. Meanwhile, with the latest moves from the European Parliament, mayors of the world’s top cities, and dedicated NGOs, the international campaign to boycott the summit is likely to gather steam. It is time for American lawmakers to join their European counterparts in demanding that there are diplomatic costs for systematic violations of human rights and reckless foreign policy by the Saudi regime.

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group and the European Parliament.

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