Europe

Significance of first EU-Bangladesh political dialogue

The European Union (EU) and Bangladesh held their first “political dialogue” on Thursday (November 24) in Dhaka to “elevate” their partnership by providing strategic direction and stepping up their cooperation on foreign and security policy.

Md. Shahriar Alam, state minister for foreign affairs of Bangladesh, leads the delegation there, while Enrique Mora, deputy secretary general of the European External Action Service (EEAS), represents the EU.

It was the first-ever political discussion in an effort to strengthen their ties at a time when Bangladesh’s influence is rising around the globe. All have an opportunity to discuss all sorts of political issues that they have shared concerns on.

When Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen and the Deputy Secretary General of the European External Action Service (EEAS) met in Brussels in October 2021, the two parties decided to begin the political dialogue.

For the first time, a political dialogue between Bangladesh and the European Union (EU) has been held in the capital Dhaka which bears some significance message for Dhaka and Brussels both. Various issues were discussed in the dialogue. However, things like democracy, fundamental rights, rule of law and human rights have gained importance. Bangladesh and EU have pledged to work together on these issues.

Besides, both sides agreed to sign a Partnership Cooperation Agreement (PCA) in view of 50 years of relations between Bangladesh and the European Union. It is reported that the agreement will include issues such as connectivity, defense, cyber security framework and addressing the risks of climate change. And the basis of this new legal framework will be human rights.

There is no doubt that the economic and political alliance of 27 developed countries of Europe will bring benefits to Bangladesh in various fields if cooperative relations are developed with the European Union. Such relationships are also important in the current global context. So, we welcome this initiative. It has not yet been determined when the partnership agreement will be signed.

However, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Shahriar Alam has expressed hope for its implementation in the context of 50 years of relations with the European Union. He said, ‘We have agreed to work on a partnership and cooperation agreement. It has a negotiation process. Taking into account the growing capacity, growth and journey of Bangladesh with the European Union, there is an opportunity to deepen and expand the relationship between the two sides.

One thing that has become clear through this dialogue is that the European Union’s interest in Bangladesh is gradually increasing. It was also understood in the speech of EU representative Enrique Mora at the end of the dialogue. He said, ‘We are reconsidering our relationship with Bangladesh for two reasons. One is the incredible growth and achievement of Bangladesh. That’s why we want to cooperate on various issues. The other is that we have important interests in the Indo-Pacific region. Our objective and strategy are to take a bigger position here. To achieve this goal, we want to increase the partnership with the countries of the region.

A country’s foreign policy is determined based on the country’s national interests. Just as the European Union has interests in strengthening relations with Bangladesh or countries in the region, Bangladesh also has interests in strengthening relations with the EU. Bangladesh’s policy makers have to adopt the strategy of how to make maximum use of this opportunity. There is an opportunity to expand the commercial relations of Bangladesh with the developed countries of Europe. Bangladesh needs the cooperation of those countries in the field of education, science and technology.

On issues like the Rohingya crisis, Bangladesh can expect the support of the EU in various international forums, including the United Nations. Bangladesh can also ask for special benefits for tourism in EU countries. Therefore, the potential of mutual cooperation created through the Bangladesh-EU dialogue, the sooner it becomes a reality, the better.

The EU recognized Bangladesh’s renewed national confidence and growth momentum and expressed interest in working with Bangladesh to address issues of mutual interest, including by emphasizing the Indo-Pacific.

The fields of collaboration between Bangladesh and the EU are growing, and both nations have a variety of international and bilateral interests. While convening the first-ever “political dialogue” between the two sides in this location, Bangladesh and the European Union (EU) indicated a strong desire to take their current relationships to the next level.

State minister Alam and EU representative Mora announced at a joint news conference that they have expressed a willingness to sign a “partnership cooperation agreement” to improve Bangladesh’s relationship with the EU. Alam stated at the briefing that “They (EU) do have such a pact with main economies of ASEAN.”

The state minister reported that during the meeting they also discussed finding a political solution through the repatriation of the displaced people from Bangladesh to Myanmar and examined the Rohingya situation from a security viewpoint.

Additionally, both parties discussed a number of topics of shared interest, such as security cooperation, free and fair Indo-pacific, the Ukraine crisis, food security, trade facilities, and the issue of continuing duty-free access for Bangladeshi goods to the market after Dhaka graduates from the LDC status. Charles Whiteley, the ambassador of the EU to Bangladesh, was also present.

The EU will also have a scheme for duty-free benefits called “GSP Plus. But EU puts some conditions. Bangladesh has made significant economic and social advancements in recent years. The most significant achievement Bangladesh might make in the next years will be leaving the LDC category. But the issue still stands: Will Bangladesh’s commerce sector be equipped to handle the challenges when it leaves the Least Developed Country (LDC) category in 2024? The most difficult part of the journey to seamless graduation appears to be losing privileged market access in many export destinations.

The largest buyer of Bangladeshi goods has historically been the European Union (EU), which accounts for 64% of all clothing exports and 58% of all exports overall. As a least developed country (LDC), Bangladesh has benefited from the finest Generalized Scheme of Preferences of the European Union programs with zero tariffs. One of the nations to make use of the EU’s preferred market access is Bangladesh. Therefore, following LDC graduation, Bangladesh must maintain its tariff preference in all significant markets, but especially in the EU market. The country’s exports would increase if favorable tariffs were used to maintain export competitiveness. As a result, there would be more manufacturing, more export revenue, more employment opportunities for women, and ultimately less poverty.

 Both parties should prioritize the issue. As Bangladesh is on the way of development, EU should support Bangladesh to be a developed country.  Bangladesh has been included in a new EU initiative named “Talent Partnership’.

Bangladeshi migrants are increasingly choosing to go to Europe, particularly to Italy, Greece, Spain, and Portugal. The EU insists on stopping unauthorized immigration, and both are working to do so.  Although there is still space for improvement, Bangladesh has achieved great strides in the area of labor, and the EU is pleased with it.

The EU has supported Bangladesh strongly on the Rohingya issue and this is discussed in the meeting. Bangladesh looks for financial aid for climate change adaptation as well as technology support for renewable energy. The discussion centers on the need for a free and open Indo-Pacific region and cooperation in counterterrorism initiatives.

After the loss of the duty-free and quota-free market access facility in the EU under the Everything but Arms (EBA) scheme in 2029, Bangladesh shall work to take advantage of the Generalized Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+) facility of the European Union (EU).

Bangladesh is going to sit in political dialogue with the European Union (EU) for the first time. The deepening and broadening of relations with the EU and the current complex geopolitical context necessitate a political dialogue.

In addition to discussing bilateral relations, political discussions were held on the three issues discussed in the Bangladesh-EU Joint Commission meeting since 2001 namely development cooperation, trade and good governance and additional issues of human rights. The purpose of this political dialogue is to give a strategic direction so that the stakeholders understand what they have to do.

Security issues was discussed on a large scale in this forum. The security agenda covers terrorism, cyber security, peacekeeping, food and energy security, climate change, international crime and more.

The two sides discussed about creating and expanding the cooperation relationship on the issues between the two sides. The EU has already announced its Indo-Pacific Strategy. Bangladesh’s position on the Indo-Pacific is being worked on. Besides, there are various mechanisms of cooperation between the countries of this region. The region’s importance was greater than ever as the world’s center of power shifted towards Asia. Regional cooperation is very important to the EU and they want to know how Bangladesh is positioned in the region – that is normal. Enrique Mora also said that Bangladesh has become an important state with excellent economic progress.

More important for Bangladesh is Rohingya repatriation. On the other hand, the situation in Myanmar is normal for the EU. EU countries have been supporting the solution of the Rohingya crisis since its inception. But after the military seized power in February last year, restoring democracy in Myanmar became paramount to them and the Rohingya issue took a back seat. The two sides must highlight their respective positions and discuss how to work to resolve the issue. It is not the only issue of Bangladesh. Again, this is not a bilateral issue between Bangladesh and Myanmar. He said, this is an international problem. The international community should be concerned about this. EU IS putting pressure on Myanmar’s military authorities by suspending various types of sanctions and development aid, including arms. The EU reiterated its gratitude for the continued generous role and actions of the Government and people of Bangladesh to temporarily shelter more than 1.1 million Rohingya forcibly displaced from Myanmar for more than five years.

However, to ensure mutual advantage, EU and Bangladesh can cooperate in a variety of fields and approaches. This initial political discussion may open the door to further fortifying the bonds.

Samina Akhter

Samina Akhter is a Dhaka, Bangladesh based activist, analyst, writer and columnist.

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