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The EU can help

Published May 18, 2013 08:04am

THE European Union is well placed to help Pakistan’s new government tackle a daunting domestic and foreign policy agenda.

Attention is inevitably focused on Pakistan’s relations with the US, India and Afghanistan. However, the election of a new democratically elected government also opens up new avenues for stronger EU-Pakistan relations.

The EU’s key priority should be to show strong, visible and sustained support for Pakistani democracy. And it should do so urgently. An EU-Pakistan road map will need to focus on three key issues.

These include the rapid convening of a third EU-Pakistan summit, quick action to re-energise and update the five-year EU-Pakistan engagement plans and the strategic dialogue between the two sides and further improvement in trade access for Pakistan’s textile exports.

The EU can also provide more support for Pakistani civil society, help improve a still abysmal record on human rights and through its own experience in regional integration encourage cross-border cooperation between India and Pakistan.

EU high representative Catherine Ashton has described the Pakistani elections as a “historic victory for the democratic life” of the country. Michael Gahler, head of the EU election observation mission, has also praised the polls but noted that various aspects of Pakistan’s electoral process should be improved. The mission failed to monitor Balochistan or the semi-autonomous tribal belt on the Afghan border where the Taliban and al Qaeda have strongholds.The EU’s greatest concern remained the deadly militant violence experienced both in the run-up to the ballot as well as on election day but members of the mission said the attacks and threats made by militant groups must not overshadow the achievements of the polls.

Behind the public statements, however, there is strong concern at the new prime minister’s ability to master the ethnic and sectarian complexities of Pakistan. Questions remain on the role of the army — and Nawaz Sharif’s attitudes towards the security establishment more generally. A dominant theme is whether the army will — once again — thwart any future moves by the new government to build bridges with India.

Doubts also linger over policies to be adopted vis-à-vis Afghanistan, especially in view of the 2014 withdrawal of Nato forces from the country. In spite of such justifiable concerns about what lies ahead, the EU must act quickly to make its mark in Pakistan — not just because the arena is crowded and Europe’s visibility remains low but also because the EU has a strong contribution to make to Pakistan’s post-election era and the challenge of good governance.

The EU, and national European governments, must start reflecting and acting on a range of measures to help Islamabad in the short and medium term. The focus has to be on helping Pakistan cope with its massive economic problems, starting with the power sector. Job-generating schemes need to be given priority as should education.

A third EU-Pakistan summit should be organised without too much delay to highlight EU support for democracy in Pakistan and set a new agenda for deeper and more comprehensive long-term relations. Such a meeting has already been mooted by EU foreign ministers — but preparations should not be delayed.

As EU foreign ministers recognised earlier this year, the so-called EU-Pakistan five-year engagement plan and strategic dialogue should be reinvigorated and updated to take account of the new government’s priorities. The plan is indeed wide-ranging — covering issues related to security, democracy, human rights and good governance — but requires real flesh on the bones.

Despite a recent warming in relations, Pakistan is still on the periphery of the EU’s Asia policy. And the key reason it is climbing slowly up the EU’s foreign policy agenda is because of the strong link with security in Afghanistan, connections between tribal areas in Pakistan and Europe’s ‘home-grown’ terrorists and persistent US and British insistence that the EU should help stabilise the country.

The EU does not have America’s clout or leverage in Pakistan. But the absence of an EU role in providing military support has built up Europe’s credibility with Pakistani civil society.

The EU needs to be more innovative and creative in forging a new strategy which looks at Pakistan not merely as a developing country, requiring traditional development aid actions, but as a fragile country in transition which needs help and assistance to modernise and reform its flagging economy, reinforce weakened political institutions and strengthen the rule of law.

Work on supporting the strengthening of democratic institutions and the electoral framework with particular focus on institution building, legislative reform and voter participation will have to continue.

Pakistan’s army and security services still need counterterrorism training to tackle the insurgency and fight radicalisation. Pakistan needs help to boost its exports to Europe and elsewhere. The EU has already given Pakistan improved market access by introducing autonomous trade preferences following a WTO waiver. The hope now is that Pakistan will secure access next year to the GSP Plus scheme for zero-duty, zero-quota exports to the EU.

This is good for Pakistan but also means that Islamabad will have to sign up to an array of labour conventions. The move will also boost the EU’s political influence in the country.

EU aid — about 500 million euros over the last four years — is significant but trade is more important for Pakistan’s development.

Finally, Pakistan will continue to need support from its friends to stay on the democratic path. Successful elections alone will not anchor democracy in Pakistan. Decisive domestic policies are needed to ensure good governance. Pakistan’s foreign partners also have a role to play in making sure that election promises are kept and peoples’ aspirations are not once again jettisoned.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.