The European Union's foreign and security policy chief Catherine Ashton will launch a "strategic dialogue" with Pakistan during a visit to Islamabad on June 5-6. Dawn senior correspondent Shada Islam asked Ashton to explain EU-Pakistan relations:
Q. Why are you going to Pakistan now?
A. I have wanted to visit Pakistan since I took office in order to underscore how important I believe the EU-Pakistan relationship is; and to personally offer Europe's support in overcoming many of Pakistan's challenges. This visit is the culmination of a number of contacts I have had with the Pakistani leadership. In addition, 2012 marks the adoption of a major new engagement plan, and the start of a strategic dialogue as the EU-Pakistan relationship graduates to the next level. Coincidentally this year also marks 50 years since the start of EU-Pakistan cooperation activities. So it is an important occasion for us.
Much has happened over these 50 years, but crucially two years ago, European leaders agreed to upgrade the EU-Pakistan link, shifting what has been a traditional, more trade-oriented relationship to one that is more political. My visit is part of implementing that upgrade - a fitting way to celebrate our milestone of cooperation
Q. What is Pakistan’s place in the EU’s Asia strategy?
A. We have an important and long-standing economic and developmental relationship with Pakistan and its neighbours. Pakistan plays a crucial role in helping the region overcome some of its security-related challenges as well as seizing the opportunities – especially the economic opportunities - that should be obvious to everyone. One of our key objectives for Asia is to help the countries of Southern and Central Asia to cooperate in the interests of their future security and prosperity.
To give just a few examples, we have recently proposed to the Pakistani authorities Action Plans to counter violent extremism and support rule of law and access to justice while a forthcoming visit to Islamabad by the European Commission will discuss how to tackle migration and organised crime.
Q. Pakistan often seen through the “Afghanistan prism” rather than as a stand-alone priority for the EU. Is this going to change?
A. Some may see Pakistan in this way. But the way I look at Pakistan is very different. Europe has an important relationship with Pakistan in its own right, going back over 50 years. Whether the issue is our mutual security, the joint effort to tackle drug-trafficking, the drive to increase commerce or to meet the Millennium Development Goals, Europe's relationship with Pakistan is crucial.
At the same time it is undeniable that Pakistan has an interest in and would benefit enormously from Afghanistan's stabilisation. It should be our common aim to promote a secure Afghanistan and a prosperous region as a whole. During my visit I will discuss with the Pakistani authorities the importance of everyone doing their utmost to facilitate the process of ensuring peace, security and development in Afghanistan.
Q. The security situation in Pakistan remains fragile: Is there a role for the EU (through increased political and security discussions with Pakistan) to help fight terrorism, improve the situation of minorities etc.
A. I am keen for the EU to develop a broader kind of relationship with Pakistan that also allows for a dialogue on a range of security issues. The EU is not just a trade partner, but is a policy partner. As part of our upgraded engagement with Pakistan, we are therefore focused on finding ways to collaborate on rule of law, counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation.
But to ensure stability, Pakistan must invest further in what I have called "deep democracy": accountability, respect for the rule of law, and protection of human rights. Elections are important, and civilian government is a prerequisite for democracy. But in themselves, these are insufficient conditions for democracy to be established and stability to develop. As we have done before, the EU will continue to offer support in building a deeper Pakistani democracy.
Q. Relations with India are improving: can the EU help foster closer cooperation e.g. in trade?
A. Pakistan and India are making efforts to improve relations and the measures to liberalise trade between the two nations should go a long way to improve regional ties. These questions are discussed by the EU bilaterally with both countries. . It is very important that the rapprochement is supported by all stakeholders.Closer understanding between them is vital for the future of the region as a whole.
Q. Pakistan wants better access to EU textiles market – the GSP waiver is still pending. Will Pakistan have access to GSP plus?
A. The EU is Pakistan’s single largest trading partner, accounting for 22 per cent of Pakistan’s external trade. The EU has already taken the unprecedented step of obtaining a WTO waiver for Pakistan, following the dreadful floods, and this will help Pakistan gain greater access to our markets. Pakistan has already benefitted substantially from GSP for some years. On the issue of the new GSP regulation, discussions are currently underway. Pakistan will have an opportunity to apply for the enhanced GSP+ preferences if the conditions for the new regime are met. These conditions refer to international conventions on human rights, labour rights environment, and good governance.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.