Khar, Kayani in Brussels: Pakistan wins praise, but is it enough?
BRUSSELS: Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar’s impressive and gruelling two-day effort to make friends and influence European and Nato policymakers has resulted in a wave of strong pro-Pakistan rhetoric from the likes of Catherine Ashton, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Nato secretary general.
But talk — although diplomats, including the very articulate Ms Rabbani, clearly thrive on it — is not enough.
What the EU and Nato want from Pakistan are good policies and determined action in areas as varied as relations with Afghanistan, Pakistan-India ties and domestic policies which protect human rights and help combat extremism, discrimination and religious persecution.
While she may have succeeded in injecting some much-needed life into EU-Pakistan relations and helped to stabilise Islamabad’s often volatile relationship with Nato, building stronger ties with both organisations will require more time, effort and hard work.
The outlook is improving. Pakistan is certainly moving up the EU agenda and Nato also has no doubts that Islamabad cannot be ignored or sidelined in the run-up to 2014 and the drawdown of foreign troops in Afghanistan.
In talks in Brussels, Ms Rabbani heard EU foreign policy chief Ashton describe Pakistan as a “significant country in the region” which acts for peace and stability in the region.
Nato’s Rasmussen recognised that “Pakistan has paid a high price” in fighting terrorism, adding: “The alliance stands together with you to combat this scourge.”
Nato has also promised to turn its relationship with Pakistan into a strategic partnership and promised that the alliance will not leave a “security vacuum” in the country after the withdrawal of its troops.
Ms Rabbani and Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani engaged in a skilful — and consistent — double act. They both met US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — but respecting the EU’s preference for high-level contacts with Pakistan’s civilian leaders rather than military men, they went their separate ways in talks with the EU.
While the foreign minister was busy trying to convince the EU and Nato that Pakistan was a force for good by pointing to efforts Pakistan was making to facilitate an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned reconciliation process, Gen Kayani was giving the same message to a joint meeting of the Political and Security Council and the European Union (EU) Military Committee in Brussels.
Pakistan’s military-civilian joint act on Afghanistan probably did reassure both the EU and Nato which have often voiced concern at the apparent discord between the two institutions.
While the focus on Afghanistan appears to have been a major objective of the Rabbani-Kayani “charm offensive” in Brussels, trade access to the EU market was also an important part of the foreign minister’s talks with the EU.
The quest for elusive GSP Plus status — which will allow duty-free entry into the European single market — is a key priority for Pakistan which rightly argues that more trade will help generate jobs in the country.
The way ahead is not certain, however. The Eurozone crisis may make Europe’s textile producing nations including Portugal, Italy and Greece, even more reluctant to give additional concessions to rival textile makers.
Meeting the regime’s tough criteria as regards human rights and labour standards will also be difficult.
It’s worth trying, however. And Ms Rabbani certainly did due diligence by engaging not only with Ashton but also EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht as well as the European Parliament which will have a key role to play in the final decision on Pakistan’s application for GSP Plus.
The European Parliament, however, remains a hard nut to crack. As the only democratically-elected EU institution, its members keep a sharp eye on human rights developments in Pakistan and other countries.
Ms Rabbani faced a barrage of questions from EP members on questions as different as Malala Yousufzai, the treatment of Ahmadis, relations with India and with Afghanistan and upcoming elections in Pakistan.
Her answers — or most of them — appear to have satisfied many of those in the room. But the Parliament’s scrutiny of Pakistan — and other countries — is unrelenting.
If Pakistan is serious about securing better trade access and changing its image as troublemaker in the region — especially in Afghanistan — one visit by an articulate and politely argumentative foreign minister will not be enough. Serious work lies ahead.