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A more prosperous Bangladesh wants even stronger relations with the EU

Bangladesh has long been a beneficiary of the EU’s favourable trade terms for Least Developed Countries (LDCs). Half of its exports, notably clothing, are sold in Europe. But it will soon be considered too prosperous for LDC status. The country’s State Minister for Foreign Affairs, Md. Shahriar Alam, has been in Brussels to discuss the new relationship. In an exclusive interview with EU Reporter, he spoke to Political Editor Nick Powell about Bangladesh’s major foreign policy objectives.

Bangladesh is a success story of the European Union’s engagement with the world’s Least Developed Countries. In fact, it is about to graduate from that least developed status and be considered a higher middle-income country. That will affect what the EU expects of Bangladesh in future and Shahriar Alam was in Brussels to discuss how the transition will be managed.

He told me that the EU’s Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme, which grants tariff and quota-free access to the Single Market, except for arms and ammunition, is the one single tool that has been the greatest enabler of Bangladesh’s economic development. It’s part of the Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP) that helps the Least Developed Countries.

But as Bangladesh becomes more prosperous, it needs to agree a new trading relationship with the European Union. In 2026, the country will graduate, post-which the EU has offered to extend the EBA preferential scheme for another three years till 2029. Thus, 2029 marks the start of the transition period for Bangladesh to qualify for the more ambitious GSP+ regime, which, as per the proposed regulation, expects a country to sign 32 international conventions on labour and human rights, environmental and climate protection and good governance.

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In his meetings with four EU Commissioners including the Trade Commissioner and some high-ranking EU officials, Mr Alam had been pressing the case for the EU’s strong support to the LDCs’ proposal in WTO for a six-year transition period after graduation. “We are asking for a six-year post-graduation transition in WTO not just for Bangladesh though but for all the Least Developed Countries, that’s very important”.

“Because the world has suffered from Covid, the world is suffering from the Russia-Ukraine conflict, we need six years to weather the challenge”, he added and explained that agreement needed to be reached by the end of the year. “I hope that we have reached out to the individuals who can potentially influence a consensus on this possibly in the 13th World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference (MC13) in Abu Dhabi in February 2024. Bangladesh, as a relatively senior member and one of the largest LDC economies, has a stronger voice … I hope the EU would be supportive of the LDCs’ proposal and we will be able to get a favourable decision in the WTO soon.”

The State Minister stressed that despite the need for more time, Bangladesh was making good progress towards the EU’s GSP+ requirements, particularly in terms of work conditions and environmental standards in the readymade garment sector and beyond.  “World’s best, highest rated green factories are in Bangladesh … of course, it’s not just in the clothing sector, in ship recycling we are very close to ratifying the Honk Kong Convention”. 

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He also pointed to the target set by the Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, for her country to have 40% renewable energy by 2041. He said there was a lot to achieve but when I asked him if he was confident that Bangladesh will be able to say that it had signed up to the 32 international conventions required for GSP+, he replied, “We have already done that”. 

State Minister Alam looked forward to an era of greater EU-Bangladesh interaction, going beyond trade. “We have agreed, a couple of months ago, that a Partnership Cooperation Agreement will be concluded, negotiation needs to be done, there’s a process, it could take anything between a year or more. I hope we will be able to conclude that and once that happens interactions will be much more frequent and formal. And also informal, it’s also important to keep that door open”. 

He pointed to Bangladesh’s membership of the UN human rights council. “That makes Bangladesh responsible not only to continue to improve our own human rights record but also to help other countries and find out issues and shared experiences and best practices, so we work with the EU on that front”. And he praised the EU for remaining committed to tackling climate change after the United States once pulled out of the Paris Agreement. 

Climate change is a crucial issue for Bangladesh, which is densely populated and vulnerable to any rise in sea level. Mr Alam said the government was glad that after the latest round of COP talks, “everyone is kind of on the same page”. He spoke about Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s leadership in finally securing recognition of the need to compensate for loss and damage for countries like Bangladesh that had made a negligible contribution to global warming.

“An issue which is very delicate when it comes to Europe is migration”, the State Minister told me. Migration is natural, migration is linked with climate change and migration is a human right as well. So, we want to promote a regular and orderly migration”. He said there was already a deal with the EU to tackle irregular migration but at the same time Europe, with its aging population, needed regular migration. “One of the major takeaways from this visit is that we are going to progress work on regular migration”.

He acknowledged that within the European Union there are member states that don’t necessarily agree about the need for migration but Bangladesh would engage bilaterally with those countries. “We have started that.. We have discussed the possibility of skills development enhancement … that can be a game-changer”.

One area where State Minister thought the EU and other major economies could be doing more was in putting pressure on the military regime in Bangladesh’s neighbour, Myanmar, where the Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi defended the persecution of the Rohingya people, more than a million of whom have fled to Bangladesh. “Now that means that somewhere down the line in the past, the countries that handheld Aung San Suu Kyi in taking her country into democracy got it all wrong”.

Mr Alam called for much stronger international response. “The sanctions on a dozen army officers or three businesses linked with them are not enough . They’re in trouble, I really doubt whether they have any assets overseas. They don’t use a credit card, they don’t leave Myanmar, so what’s the point?”.

The situation with the forcibly displaced Rohingyas had now deteriorated beyond a humanitarian and political issue. “There’s a third dimension to it, that we always feared; the law-and-order situation and the behaviour of the Rohingyas, in terms of drug-trafficking and gun-running, which is becoming a very regular issue. We have had very senior law enforcement agency officials who lost their lives”.

Meanwhile international aid to help the refugees was being drastically reduced, with funding never more than 60% of what it used to be. The food budget is being cut in three stages, to a half, the minister explained. “Now  Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government is spending over two billion dollars a year and that’s purely from our taxpayers’ money”.

“I’d just urge, as I did here to the European Union leadership, to make sure the issue is not forgotten. It must be one of the top priorities. I accept today it’s Ukraine that is the top priority but that shouldn’t take your eyes and ears away from the Rohingya issue”, he added. “And in the neighbourhood, there are countries who can do more and must do more because … the widespread gun-running and drug-trafficking resulting in the law-and-order situation in the camp, soon they will spread in the region”.

Bangladesh’s other border is with India. It’s a close relationship because of historic bonds, explained the State Minister. When the people of Bangladesh suffered immensely during the 1971 War of Liberation from Pakistan, it was India that offered both humanitarian and military aid, although it was itself a very poor country at the time. 

“But having said that, as is the case with every neighbour, we have issues … Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government took an initiative that has improved the security situation, no insurgencies in the border areas . The land of Bangladesh is no longer used by any separatist group … but that was quite different in the case of other governments in the not-so-distant past” he observed, adding that there were still pending issues, largely to do with water-sharing. 

More than half a century after the War of Independence, an economically transformed Bangladesh is still waiting for a formal apology from Pakistan for the three million deaths and other atrocities at the hands of the Pakistan army and its local collaborators. Shahriar Alam doesn’t see the bitterness ending until that happens. There are diplomatic and business contacts but of the overall relationship he can only say “it’s not dissolving but it’s not improving either”.

Yet despite the irritants in the relations with Pakistan and with Myanmar, Bangladesh continues to uphold the foreign policy philosophy of the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, ‘friendship to all and malice towards none’.

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