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Bangladesh Foreign Minister looks forward to even stronger relations with EU

Dr Hasan Mahmud has paid his first visit to Brussels since his appointment as Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister, following his country’s General Election in January. He’s very familiar with the European capital, where he studied environmental science before beginning his political career. But there was little opportunity to return to old haunts during his three-day visit, which was primarily to join the 3rd EU Indo-Pacific Ministerial Forum, writes Political Editor Nick Powell.

When I sat down with the minister, he told me that the forum had been an opportunity to discuss common challenges, notably the global economic shock caused by the Russia-Ukraine war. He spoke of Bangladesh’s “willingness and eagerness” to see an end to conflict, not just in Ukraine but throughout the world -and most urgently in Gaza.

Dr Mahmud had also managed to fit in no fewer than 12 bilateral meetings during his visit. As well as with foreign ministers from the Indo-Pacific region and several EU member states, he had what he described as two very good meetings with the Commissioner for International Partnerships, Jutta Urpilainen, and the Commissioner for Crisis Management, Janez Lenarčič.

He said Bangladesh has an excellent relationship with the European Union, which is its biggest trading partner. In October 2023, during the visit of the Bangladesh Prime Minister to Brussels, both the Prime Minister and the European Commission President jointly announced the launching of negotiations on a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement between Bangladesh and the EU. The Foreign Minister highlighted how this Agreement will frame the future relations between both sides, which is increasingly taking on strategic dimensions. 

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Dr Mahmud stressed to me the vital importance to Bangladesh of receiving GSP+ status under the EU’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences. The country’s huge economic progress means that it is graduating to middle income status and will no longer automatically qualify for the tariff and quota-free access to the European market available to the world’s least developed countries.

“It’s very important for us from 2029 because the advantages that we have been enjoying, we would not enjoy any more. We have to have some other way that our exports to the EU are not hampered and our economic ties are further strengthened”, he said. Bangladesh is now certain to meet the GSP+ requirements that involve implementing 27 international conventions related to labour and human rights, environmental and climate protection, and good governance.

Bangladesh has also taken on the burden of sheltering more a million Rohingya refugees, who fled persecution in Myanmar. Financial support from the international community has been falling away as other global crises gain more attention. 

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“This is the harsh truth, that the international focus has been shifted from the Rohingyas to the Russia-Ukraine War, especially in Europe, also to the Gaza War. So last year, the international assistance has been reduced to half for the Rohingyas. This is difficult for us, to feed them and take care of them, as we have been doing”, the Foreign Minister told me.

In the end, there is only one solution, he explained, safe and voluntary repatriation of the Rohingyas to their homeland, Myanmar. It is difficult for Bangladesh when the international community has so many priorities but Dr Mahmud said that he sees hope in the EU.

“The EU’s focus on the Rohingyas has not been reduced, that’s what I’ve been told by the EU Commissioners. Next month there will be a Joint Response Plan meeting in Geneva, I believe that will be a good meeting and the assistance from the international community will continue”, he added. 

The EU has so far committed €19.5 million this year to Bangladesh to help the Rohingya refugees, plus another €7 million for disaster preparedness. But double that will be needed to match the aid eventually given in 2023. Meanwhile, Bangladesh continues its diplomatic efforts to reach a repatriation agreement with Myanmar.

Conflict with Myanmar has been avoided, true to Bangladesh’s enduring foreign policy of ‘friendship to all and malice towards none’, first enunciated by the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He led the country to independence from Pakistan, which was secured only after a bitter and bloody war of liberation in 1971.

Bangladesh is one of the top contributors of troops for the UN’s peacekeeping forces and now it is using its moral authority to press for an end to the conflict in Gaza. “This is indeed unacceptable”, the Foreign Minister told me. 

“People who are not involved in violence in any way are being killed and they include women and children in large numbers. This in the twenty-first century … This is very saddening, frustrating and unacceptable that despite the call from the UN, even the call from the US, it seems that the Israelis do not listen”.

Bangladesh has also been using its ability to speak to all sides to urge an end to the Russia-Ukraine war. Dr Mahmud observed that it has destabilised the whole world through commodity price rises which have hit Bangladesh as much as any country.

Meanwhile, he warned, the international community is still not doing enough about Climate Change, a vital issue for Bangladesh, which has made a negligible contribution to global warming but is vulnerable to the threat of more extreme weather and rising sea levels. Dr Mahmud pointed out that the world spends much more money on the arms race than on saving the planet “but the understanding around the globe is much better than 15 years back”.

Until January, Hasan Mahmud was Bangladesh’s Information and Broadcasting Minister. So I concluded my interview by asking him what it was like dealing with his country’s extremely vibrant and competitive media, one of the strongest guarantors of its democracy.

“The media is very vibrant, very strong, compared to many other countries”, he explained. “So, dealing with the media is not easy. But I was publicity secretary of our party for many years, so I had a good relationship with the media personalities … when I left the ministry, the people in the ministry, the people in the media, all told me they would miss me!”

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