After protracted negotiations spanning over several years, Pakistan and the European Union (EU) this week finally agreed on the Strategic Engagement Plan (SEP), which would elevate the relationship between Islamabad and the 28-member European bloc to a comprehensive strategic partnership.
The agreement on the plan was reached during the visit of High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini to Islamabad. The two sides will formally sign the SEP document sometime later in Brussels.
The SEP will serve as the framework for the overall relationship between EU and Pakistan. It would replace the Five Year Engagement Plan that expired last year. An essential feature of the new engagement program is that it, unlike its predecessor, is not time bound. It is much broader and gives a continuing opportunity to the Pakistani and European leaders to strengthen their partnership that revolves around a cooperative approach on the issues related to security, democracy, human rights, governance and socio-economic development, trade and investment, energy and sectoral cooperation.
The agreement on the SEP draft was celebrated by both sides. Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi described the achievement of consensus on the document as “laying of the architecture for a bright future between Pakistan and EU.” The High Representative of EU saw it as “an exceptional” development.
EU-Pakistan relations date back to 1962 and have gradually evolved over the decades. The foundation for the current phase of the relationship was laid by the 2004 Cooperation Agreement on Partnership and Development, more commonly known as the Third Generation Cooperation Agreement, and the initiation of political dialogue between the two sides after 2007. Revival of democracy in the country in 2008 provided the right atmosphere for further expansion of these ties and at one stage they had started their summit level dialogue, which has not been held for quite some time now. The summit seems to have been replaced by the strategic dialogue, whose fourth round was held during Mogherini’s visit to Islamabad.
The intent behind the expansion of ties was to enhance the political substance in the relationship and strengthen bilateral security cooperation. However, the trade and aid elements of the relations continued to be the defining features at least from the Pakistani perspective.
Pakistan has to a great extent benefitted from the preferential market access to EU under GSP+ status and as Mogherini said at her presser in Islamabad, Pakistani exports to EU have doubled since 2014. Pakistan could have benefitted more from the status had it diversified the range of its exportable products. Pakistani exports to EU are currently concentrated in textile and garments sector, which constitute over 70 percent of the products reaching European markets from here.
Pakistan still has another five years to benefit from the facility and the government should look at how it could utilise it.
Meanwhile, Pakistan has received 554.5 million euros in humanitarian aid from EU over the past ten years.
Besides trade and development aid, the relationship has placed extra responsibilities on Pakistan to implement its international commitments relating to democracy and human rights especially those on freedom of belief and religion, freedom of expression, and the rights of women and children. EU, moreover, has been a strong proponent of the growth of civil society in Pakistan. There are 27 international conventions, whose implementation is necessary for the continuation of the preferential tariff regime for Pakistan.
Despite its reservations about Pakistan’s human rights record, especially with regards to abuse of blasphemy laws, minorities rights, and the shrinking of space for the civil society, EU has remained lenient on these issues.
The restrictions imposed on the work of international NGOs over the past year and a half, moreover, had not gone well with EU. Qureshi, in his presser, underlined how Pakistan successfully renegotiated the terms of reference with the German political foundations with regards to their work in Pakistan. The underlying message was quite obvious – Pakistan is ready to show flexibility on the issue of INGOs.
EU-Pakistan Readmission Treaty, which establishes procedures for the identification and return of illegal migrants, is another area in which EU has been asking for the effective implementation of the agreement. EU wants Pakistan to take extra measures to combat migrant smuggling and human trafficking.
“In the field of migration, the parties wished to see enhanced progress on the rollout and systemic operationalisation of the Readmission Case Management System (RCMS) for processing readmission applications. In the course of the forthcoming implementation of the Strategic Engagement Plan, both sides will work towards a comprehensive dialogue on migration and mobility,” the two sides said in a joint statement after their talks at Foreign Office.
Both sides have made notable progress on strengthening their security and defense cooperation. They have been holding annual dialogues on Counter-Terrorism and Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. EU has been emphasising on Pakistan to attain highest possible standards in nuclear safety and security, and play “a constructive role in multilateral disarmament discussions,” in addition to ratifying or joining non-proliferation treaties and initiatives.
Mogherini had during recent India-Pakistan crisis emphasised on Pakistan the need to undertake “clear and targeted actions related to all forms of terrorist activity.” Speaking in Islamabad after the talks, she welcomed Pakistan’s fresh commitment to take action against militant groups and offered EU’s assistance in this regard. EU also offered technical assistance in meeting the conditions of Financial Action Task Force.
As EU and Pakistan embark on a new phase in their relations, the challenge is about how to take these ties beyond a trade and aid relationship and transform them into a longstanding partnership.
The writer is a senior researcher at Islamabad Policy Institute. She can be reached at email@example.com