EUís interest in Pakistan
Tuesday, 29 July 2008

By Shadaba Islam

A COLUMN on European concerns over Pakistan’s uncertain political future may seem irrelevant as Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and his top aides prepare to visit Washington.

But here’s the rub: while America can provide Pakistan with military hardware to tackle urgent security risks, consolidating democracy and avoiding economic collapse will require help from a variety of actors, including support and assistance from the European Union.

Security and democracy/development are closely interconnected — as are US and EU interests in Pakistan. European governments are just as concerned and frustrated as the US administration at the mounting casualties among their troops in Afghanistan. Both the US and the EU are increasing pressure on Pakistan to take stronger action against the Taliban forces taking sanctuary on its territory.

Nato Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer will be in Pakistan in early autumn to press home the point, albeit probably in a less stark manner than recent warnings by senior US officials, including Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen.

However, while they may harbour similar fears about the increase in Taliban activity both in Afghanistan and within Pakistan, US and EU policymakers appear to be approaching the challenge in different ways.

The US continues to view Pakistan through a relatively narrow security prism. The Pentagon has a strong — some would argue the strongest — say in US policy towards Pakistan. Bolstering Pakistan’s military through assistance that includes financial aid is therefore likely to remain a top US priority, even under the next US administration.

In contrast, European policymakers are taking a broader, multifaceted approach to tackling the challenge of increasing militancy, religious extremism, and democracy and development in Pakistan. The focus is on building and reinforcing ramshackle state institutions, not backing personalities. It is about consolidating Pakistan’s still ramshackle reform efforts, improving the functioning of the National Assembly and encouraging the protection of minorities as well as protecting human rights.

Recent EU discussions have focused on possible funding for development projects in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) although implementing such a blueprint is conditional on the security situation in the area. Europeans could also support recent suggestions by some Pakistani economists for the convening of an international conference to draw up a badly needed balance-of-payments aid package to help Pakistan weather the current economic crisis.

Europe’s determination to step up its engagement with Pakistan is certainly new and almost as certainly linked to the worsening situation in Afghanistan. EU governments, reluctant to forge stronger ties with Pakistan under military rule, see opportunities for cooperation with the country’s democratically elected leaders. “We have to do more in Pakistan now that it has a democratic government,” EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner told this correspondent recently, adding that the focus of EU actions in the country would be on encouraging democracy and reform.

Turning those good intentions into concrete actions remains a challenge, however.

Hurdles exist on both sides. Initial European optimism about Pakistan’s future following the February elections is giving way to a more sceptical assessment of the coalition’s policies and priorities. European diplomats admit to being discouraged by the infighting within the government, disagreements with and over President Musharraf and the focus on political score-settling which they warn is distracting Pakistani policymakers from tackling the twin challenges of rising religious extremism and a rapidly deteriorating economy.

The overriding fear, say many Europeans, is that Pakistan’s perpetually squabbling politicians are ignoring vitally important security threats, especially Taliban efforts to destabilise Pakistan.

Finding out just who is in charge in Pakistan is the overarching problem, according to some senior diplomats. While the prime minister is definitely a first port of call for EU ministers and officials, many also know they must meet Asif Zardari or his allies in the Pakistan People’s Party as well as representatives of Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League.

Anxious to consolidate the role of the National Assembly, Europeans also try and make a point of meeting members of the legislature as well as members of provincial governments, especially the ruling Awami National Party government in the NWFP.

And then there’s Gen Parvez Kayani. EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana made it a point not to meet Kayani during his visit to Islamabad earlier this year as proof of European backing for the new civilian government. But many in Europe recognise that when it comes to key security issues, Kayani and the army cannot be ignored.

Distractions also exist in Europe. While Pakistan and Afghanistan are high on the EU agenda at the moment, Europe’s main priorities continue to lie in its immediate neighbourhood. Meetings of EU foreign ministers are dominated by discussions on the Balkans and the Middle East.

Of the 27 EU states, Britain remains the most consistent in its focus on Pakistan but upgrading relations with Islamabad has not so far been a key priority for EU heavyweights like Germany and France. This could change, however, if French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner makes good on his promise to put relations with Pakistan higher up on the bloc’s agenda during the current French EU presidency.

Building a stronger pro-Pakistan lobby within the increasingly influential European Parliament also remains a challenge. The EU assembly has so far invested a great deal of time and energy in discussing and passing resolutions on the situation in Kashmir. In the process, however, the interests of Pakistan per se have been ignored.

Many in Pakistan appear to make no distinction between US and EU policies. That can be expected from the general public, used to viewing ‘the West’ as a monolithic entity. The EU is partly to blame for its failure to project a stronger profile in Pakistan, and in other parts of Asia.

Uncertainty over the future of the reform treaty — which will create the post of an EU foreign minister and a diplomatic service — following its rejection by Irish voters in June is partly responsible for Europe’s lack of visibility in Asia and elsewhere.

America will undoubtedly remain the most powerful foreign player in Pakistan for decades to come. But it’s time Pakistani policymakers sought broader international support. The message from Brussels is that the EU is ready and willing to provide such backing — but Islamabad must first get its act together.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.

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