EU’s Pakistan policy must come off autopilot

With Pakistan at a crossroads and facing a profound crisis, the EU cannot leave its policy unchanged


This piece was first published in European Voice on 15 June 2009. 

When EU leaders hold their first ever summit with Pakistan on 17 June, they will meet leaders of a country at a critical juncture. After two months of warfare, the government in Islamabad has regained territory in Swat and Malakand from the Pakistani Taliban. Feeling pressured, the militants are now striking back the best way they can – through terror and bombings, such as the attacks seen in Peshawar.

How Islamabad deals with the three fronts of the current crisis – security, governance and humanitarian – will determine whether Pakistan slides back to its old habits of denial and fragmentation, or whether it can uphold the fragile but genuine momentum for change.

Being able to stabilise the frontier regions by deploying basic services, civilian security and starting to roll out a permanent government presence will be one of the factors that determines what happens next.

Incentives for change

The EU can play a critical role in making Pakistan’s change a lasting one, by providing stabilisation tools such as aid and governance programmes while boosting trade and development. Such tools would create incentives for Pakistan’s elite and citizens to maintain the path of change and improvement. The EU-Pakistan summit is just the place to begin such work.

First, the EU should help address the unprecedented humanitarian crisis triggered by the military offensive. The number of displaced people is a staggering two million. That is in addition to the 500,000 made homeless by an earlier operation in Bajaur. This may in the long term hamper Pakistan’s economic recovery; in the short term, it undermines the military’s hard-fought gains. Why? The Pakistani government’s inability to deliver post-combat assistance makes the 2.5 million refugees easy prey for extremists such as Lashkar-e-Taiba who use charity to win hearts and minds. As Pakistani forces fight today’s enemy, they may inadvertently be swelling the ranks of future foes.

The EU should begin by matching the recent US pledge of more than $200 million (€142m) in humanitarian aid. The UN has made an appeal for $500m in assistance. Set against that, the €5.5m humanitarian-aid package that the EU has so far pledged and the fact that not a single EU commissioner has visited the refugees speak volumes of the EU’s neglect.

For those EU countries that do not have bilateral ties with Pakistan, the establishment of a ‘Frontier Emergency Fund’ would help channel aid into quick-impact projects. Donations of €1m – or even €500,000 – could make a difference. Such a fund would also help reinforce the credibility of Pakistan’s civilian government by providing assistance to support state services, including the provision of security, electricity and potable water.

Beyond the emergency situation, the EU should focus on what it does best: trade and development. The EU must listen carefully to Pakistan’s requirements and, despite misgivings and technical blockages, explore the pros and cons of opening negotiations on a free-trade agreement. Few other overtures would send as powerful a political signal.

Increased access to trade financing is also necessary to ensure Pakistan continues to export goods despite the financial crisis. Boosting Pakistan’s private sector should be another key priority. According to the Asian Development Bank, Pakistan’s private sector is the biggest contributor to gross domestic product as well as Pakistan’s biggest employer. The EU should help remove bureaucratic bottlenecks, which prevent the emergence of a freer, more dynamic private sector.

The EU should then launch a ‘rule-of-law review taskforce’ with the Pakistani authorities in order to identify gaps and needs in resources and training within the civilian security forces and the judicial sector. A joint body of this kind could make recommendations on how to develop an effective civilian counter-terrorism strategy that emphasises police and legal action rather than exclusively military efforts, and on how to target EU assistance not only to the front line, but also to police efforts in the Sindh and Punjab provinces.

This need not be a boots-on-the-ground mission of the sort that the EU traditionally dispatches under its European security and defence policy (ESDP). Instead, it could be a ‘smart ESDP’ mission, a boutique intervention with few, long-serving experts working on the ground with the Pakistani authorities, coupled with out-of-country training for the top echelons of Pakistan’s police and judiciary.

Finally, the summit must signal that the EU is shifting away from backing Pakistan’s political flavour-of-the-month towards helping build strong institutions and investing in Pakistan’s civil society, which is vibrant, dynamic and committed to democracy. Groups that deserve support include lawyers’ organisations, women’s groups, human-rights activists and the media, where the focus should be on ensuring media independence and journalism training.

Civil society role

In the past two years, Pakistan’s civil society has proved that it is playing an essential role in deepening democracy. Based on the recommendations of its own election mission from last year, the EU should approach the Pakistani authorities to explore ways to jointly support a strengthening of democratic institutions, including the modernisation of political parties and the electoral framework.

Pakistan is at a crossroads and will need EU help and encouragement to take the right turn. The EU-Pakistan summit should mark the beginning of a new strategic partnership, which helps the Islamabad government deal with the immediate crisis and helps transform a weakened state into a modern Muslim democracy in the heart of south Asia.

Shada Islam is a senior programme executive at the European Policy Centre, Daniel Korski is a senior policy fellow at the European Council for Foreign Relations, and Fabrice Pothier is the director of Carnegie Europe. They are writing in a personal capacity.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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