Europe and Pakistan: Neither autocracy or theocracy

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Richard Howitt MEP

Richard Howitt MEP

Whether the Taliban reasserts control within its borders and across them, what happens in Pakistan really matters to Europe and the rest of the world, writes Richard Howitt.

Richard Howitt MEP is Vice-Chair of the European Parliament’s Delegation with South Asia and also Socialist and Democrat Group Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs.

This week, the European Union is launching its counter-terrorism dialogue with Pakistan, timely in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo and Krudttønden Cafe attacks, but also of the shootings at an army school in Pakistan itself, which has created new-found urgency on both sides to step-up action.

A European Parliament delegation visiting the country last week as part of the run-up to the dialogue, discussed proposals ranging from action to cut off terrorist finance, widening forensic investigation, improved intelligence techniques and military-to-military diplomacy, as well as wider efforts for judicial reform and to counter radicalisation. After the delegation briefed EU Ambassadors of some of the ideas we had discussed in meetings with Pakistan’s Government and Parliament, one of the Ambassadors made an aside questioning why we should be seeking to influence counter-terrorism policy? But the common challenges for Pakistan and for Europe demonstrate, as much as for any country as Europe’s common foreign and security policy evolves, that the days are now gone when the European Parliament is restricted to passing human rights urgency resolutions alone and leaves discussion about security to EU governments.

Our agenda last week included discussion of Pakistan’s new and much more constructive relationship with Afghanistan after that country’s own elections, the worrying signs of deterioration in relations with India in relation to the longstanding Kashmir dispute, as well as potential EU-Pakistan collaboration in this year’s crucial international negotiations on nuclear proliferation, climate change and on sustainable development. The evident popularity of the enhanced ‘GSP+’ trade relationship Pakistan now enjoys with the EU, voted in the European Parliament just over a year ago, plays a highly significant role given our own efforts to negotiate a free trade agreement with India.

In the fragile balance in the politics of South Asia, Europeans must avoid the same deep resentment in Pakistan against what is seen as U.S. favouritism towards India, in the light of President Obama’s recent visit and an agreement between the two countries on civil nuclear technology. But the careful balance in Europe’s own position has not and must not encompass any retreat from our outright opposition to Pakistan lifting its moratorium on executions, or from asking hard questions about the prosecution of alleged terrorist cases in military, rather than civilian courts. An ‘all party conference’ agreed to return the powers to the army after the Peshawar military school shootings, with politicians insisting it was their own decision to confront the spiralling violence, rather than a ‘power grab’ by the military itself.

Irrespective of the truth of that statement, European diplomacy has to avoid a binary choice between a Pakistan of autocracy or theocracy. That meant our delegation continued to press proposals for electoral reform stemming from our own observer report after the 2013 elections, including for the restoration of elections to local government. And if we want Pakistan to honour human rights commitments in the fight against terrorism, it is Europe’s responsibility to integrate human rights cooperation within the forthcoming dialogue.

A former academic at the University of Bradford, now working on counter-terrorist policy in Pakistan, told me that isolation amongst Pakistani children sent home from Britain and other European countries, cut off from their immediate families and prey to extremist ideology, has been a key factor in radicalisation within the country. Not only is this an interesting ‘reverse take’ on the normal assumption that the flow of the terrorist threat comes from Pakistan to Europe, but it also suggests an obvious area for a European project to help tackle the problem.

International politicians are falling backwards over ourselves to insist there is no ‘clash of civilisations’ in the world, and to counter the rise of militant religious fundamentalism by reasserting our own nations’ commitment to multiculturalism and inter-faith dialogue. Pakistan is a country at the forefront of Islamic countries wrestling with its own ability to prevent the rise of sectarianism, and how its constitutional commitment to the Muslim faith can be reconciled with freedom of expression and association, as well as of religious belief. Whichever solutions it finds for itself will inevitably have implications for all of us.

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