Strasbourg comment: EU-Pakistan Relations

The EU's assistance to Pakistan is 'vital' in ensuring long-term development in the region, argues Boris Zala.

By Boris Zala

14 Mar 2014

For a long time, EU-Pakistan relations were pursued inside a rather narrow paradigm of development aid, humanitarian assistance and trade. The European Union is, after all, Pakistan's largest donor and export market.

In recent years, however, it has become evident that a relationship based solely on trade and development is inadequate. Islamabad is a vital partner in the global fight against terrorism, drug trafficking and nuclear proliferation. Due to its strategic location, Pakistan holds keys to wider regional security, especially in the context of the planned withdrawal of Nato combat troops from neighbouring Afghanistan.

The EU's policy is gradually adjusting. The bilateral agenda has grown wider, deeper and better institutionalised, notably through the 'five-year engagement plan' and the EU-Pakistan strategic dialogue. The report, adopted by the European parliament on 12 March, welcomes the new dynamic, and sets forth recommendations on the way forward.

In this context, parliamentary elections in May 2013, which is the first civilian and democratic transfer of power in Pakistan's modern history, provided a unique opportunity. After years of military rule, we now have a credible, democratic and legitimate interlocutor in Islamabad, allowing our engagement to be more explicitly political in nature.

The EU must work to strengthen Pakistan's democratic institutions, the rule of law, and in particular Pakistan's law enforcement structures, all the while insisting that Pakistani authorities rectify the multitude of human rights abuses and problems.

Pakistan's government faces momentous challenges, above all in containing the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) insurgency and regaining effective control over the federally administered tribal areas. Whichever way the government chooses to respond, whether by dialogue with the TTP or through stepped up security operations, building up democratic and civilian institutions is a critical piece of any long-term solution.

"Only a democratically elected government, subjected to checks and balances, possesses the credibility and legitimacy to restore sustainable peace and order. EU's assistance is therefore vital"

Only a democratically elected government, subjected to checks and balances, possesses the credibility and legitimacy to restore sustainable peace and order. EU assistance is therefore vital. Going forward, the EU should pursue a nuanced and multi-dimensional policy towards Pakistan. One that combines all the relevant instruments, such as political dialogue, security cooperation, trade, and assistance, which is in line with the so-called 'comprehensive approach' to external action and is contextualised in a broader regional strategy.

We must, of course, cooperate closely with the US, but act as an autonomous actor, including in security affairs. In this respect, our engagement in Pakistan is also as a litmus test of the EU's ability to live up to its ambition of a truly global player.