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No longer on the periphery

January 28, 2012

WEDDING bells in the air? European Union foreign ministers recently adopted a so-called “engagement plan” to build a strategic relationship with Pakistan with the focus on forging a partnership for peace and development rooted in “shared values, principles and commitments”.

The plan is to last five years. As EU ministers put it, the blueprint is an expression of the EU’s engagement to support Pakistan’s institutions and civil society. The EU’s hope is that it can press Pakistan to complete its transition to a stable democracy, and play a key role in fostering peace and stability in South Asia.

As an upbeat press release put it, “the EU will continue to work closely with Pakistan as it seeks to address its economic and development challenges and provide security for its people”.

Catherine Ashton, the EU high representative for foreign and security policy, is expected to sign the new strategy when she meets her Pakistani counterpart Hina Rabbani Khar later this year to launch a strategic dialogue.

The EU initiative, coming in the midst of difficult EU decisions on slapping new oil import sanctions on Iran and easing restrictions on Myanmar, is significant. After all, Pakistan has long been on the periphery of the EU’s Asia policy, eclipsed by Europe’s increasingly dynamic relations with China and growing interest in India.

Until recently, most European governments largely failed to recognise that a nuclear-armed Pakistan, at the crossroads of Central Asia, the Middle East and South Asia should be much higher up on their foreign and security policy agenda. In recent years, however, relations with Pakistan have started moving up the EU foreign and security policy agenda. Pakistan and the EU have held two summit meetings and EU foreign ministers hold regular discussions on the country.

On the trade front, the EU is still seeking a go-ahead from the World Trade Organisation for a scheme to give special concessions to Pakistan’s textile and other exports following the 2010 floods. There is a commitment to bring Pakistan back into the EU’s special duty-free regime for developing countries (GSP plus) when the system is revised in 2014. As the relationship has grown, so have expectations, with the EU language on Pakistan becoming tougher.

The EU’s focus is on combining support for Pakistan’s civilian leaders with demands for better governance, fiscal reform and tougher counterterrorism measures. Pakistan, for its part, has used its high-level meetings with the EU to press for better market access.

The EU-Pakistan “engagement plan” is a good step forward provided it is correctly implemented. As Pakistan lurches from crisis to crisis, however, the EU needs to be more creative in forging a fresh strategy which looks at Pakistan not merely as a developing country, requiring traditional development aid actions, but as an increasingly fragile country in transition which needs assistance to modernise and reform its flagging economy, reinforce weakened political institutions and to strengthen the rule of law.

At the same time, despite their aura of power, Pakistan’s army and security services need counterterrorism training to tackle the insurgency and fight radicalisation.

Although Islamabad is largely focused on its volatile relationship with the US, Europe also matters. Many in Pakistan recognise Europe as an autonomous actor, with its own priorities. Unlike the US, the EU is seen mainly as a soft actor which focuses on building democracy and good governance in Pakistan. The EU has won kudos for focusing on relations with Pakistan’s civilian leaders, however weak, rather than engaging with the military.

The EU has been persistent in demanding that Pakistan hold free, fair and peaceful elections and continue the fight against terrorism. Recent statements on Pakistan by EU foreign ministers underline efforts to build a strong long-term EU-Pakistan partnership and indicate full European support for democracy in the country.

The rhetoric from both sides is impressive. Translating words into policies remains an uphill struggle for both sides, however.

The EU’s approach to Pakistan remains a work in progress. As indicated above, Europe has key assets that it can leverage in Pakistan. EU funding, including grants from the European Investment Bank, are expected to contribute a total of around 485 million euros to Pakistan over the period 2009-2013.

EU humanitarian assistance, including contributions from member states, to Pakistan is valued at 423 million euros, including assistance following the 2010 floods. On the economic front, the EU is Pakistan’s largest trading partner, with EU imports mainly of textiles and clothing currently valued at about 3.5 billion euros a year. However, in order to draw up a strong partnership with Pakistan, there must be closer coordination among national European governments and the EU.

There is also a need for stronger coherence of EU policies. The latter requires intense and sustained policy consultation among several EU departments, including the new ‘External Action Service’ and European Commission directorates dealing with humanitarian operations, development policy, trade, budgetary affairs and climate change. The EU does not have America’s clout and leverage in dealing with Pakistan. However, Europe can be an important niche player by prodding and pushing Pakistan in the right direction. More specifically, Europe should act to strengthen the role of Pakistan’s increasingly dynamic civil society groups.

With elections scheduled for 2013, the EU should continue to explore ways to support strengthening of democratic institutions and the electoral framework with particular focus on institution building, legislative reform and voter participation as well as help to modernise Pakistan’s dynastic and feudal-based political parties.

The EU is not alone in finding it difficult to understand Pakistan. The country presents many different facets, making it difficult for friends or foes to develop adequate policy responses. However, persistence and patience are necessary. Fortunately, the EU seems ready to stay the course.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.