Role of Civil Societies in Enhancing Bangladesh-EU Relations

Bangladesh and European Union share a strong historical relation among them. Since establishing diplomatic ties in 1973, the EU gradually became one of the top destinations for Bangladesh — an export-oriented economy. Bangladesh is one of the countries that enjoy the GSP scheme in the EU and duty-free access under ‘Everything But Arms’ (EBA).

However, Bangladesh is currently graduating from an LDC to a Developing country, scheduled to be completed by 2026. Once graduation ends and Bangladesh becomes a Developing Country, the country will be ineligible for the current GSP scheme. It will require obtaining a GSP+ scheme designed for developing countries for duty-free access.

Besides Bangladesh’s export agenda and GSP+ scheme, Bangladesh also desires European investment, import, labor market, and technological cooperation to continue its fast growth in the economy. Like Bangladesh, the EU also can not ignore Bangladesh’s potential to serve mutual benefits. As the world’s 2nd largest Ready-Made Garments (RMG) producer, Bangladesh is one of the important sources of cheap RMG for the European Union’s cold terrain. Bangladeshi diaspora communities living in EU countries also contribute to the EU economy.

Besides socio-economic ties, the EU and Bangladesh also have scope to cooperate in the political arena. Bangladesh has emerged as a key geostrategic partner for all actors involved in the current Indo-Pacific geopolitics. Apart from that, Bangladesh plays a vocal role in climate politics in the international arena. Bangladesh also has a sound participation in the UN and other multilateral bodies, where on mutual interest, the EU and Bangladesh both desire each other for cooperation and advocacy.

While Bangladesh and the EU maintain sound and continuous diplomatic relations, civil societies can play an important role in enhancing this relationship further. Engagement at track 1.5 or 2 allows civil society, participants, and policymakers to understand each other’s priorities. Moreover, such engagement also helps to exchange views and expand networks and connections among civil societies, activists, and businessmen. Take, for instance, the recent conference in Brussels that brought policymakers, members of the parliament, and civil societies.

The conference in Brussels is titled ‘‘EU-Bangladesh Cooperation: Opportunities and the Bengal Tiger Economy’. It is jointly organized by The European Institute for Asian Studies (EIAS), and Study Circle London is one such engagement of civil societies and policymakers that identified many potentials and rationale that would help to enhance the relations.

Prominent panelists and speakers of the conference included EIAS Director Lin Goethals, Bangladesh Ambassador Mahbub Hassan Saleh, Faruque Hassan, President of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), Study Circle London Chairman Syed Mohammed Ali, Member of the European Parliament Milan Zver, Advocate Tarana Halim, former State Minister of Post and Telecommunications, John Cornet d’Elzius, Director for Asia and the Pacific at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belgium, and Nahim Razzaq, MP of Bangladesh National Parliament. People from academia and the business community also joined the conference.

At the conference, the speakers and panelists from both Bangladesh and the EU identified several rationales and scopes for increasing cooperation. In brief, the speakers identified that, firstly, there is great potential in Bangladesh and in its cooperation with the EU, especially given its geostrategic role in the Indo-Pacific and in view of its graduation from LDC status. Secondly, the speakers assessed Bangladesh’s development and opportunities for enhancing bilateral relations. Thirdly, they identified that the EU and Bangladesh are seeking to expand their cooperation beyond trade into areas such as climate change, security, connectivity, migration (with a special mention of the Rohingya crisis), and the blue economy, and this cooperation is based on shared values in democracy, justice, gender equality, human rights, and a secular government. Fourthly, Ambassador Saleh highlighted that to strengthen their partnership, the EU and Bangladesh have agreed to initiate negotiations for a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) within this year. Fifthly, speakers elaborated on the economic and industrial aspects of the EU-Bangladesh relationship, as Bangladesh is one of the top RMG exporters in the world. In the socio-economic aspect, the speakers focused that Bangladesh’s poverty rate reduced significantly and Bangladesh is continuing to maintain rapid growth in GDP. 

In the prescription aspect, the speakers prescribed that the EU should perceive Bangladesh based on its geostrategic significance in the context of the Indo-Pacific strategy. Besides this, the speakers stressed the need for human capacity development in Bangladesh and inclusive governance. Speakers identified three major areas for enhancing cooperation, food security, climate change, and defense cooperation.

Assessing the contents of the conference suggest that the conference reviewed the existing relations of the last 50 years, highlighted mutual aspects, prescribed several issues, and identified major prospects. The participant lists include MPs from the EU and Bangladesh, Foreign Ministry Officials, Businessmen, and Academics. 

The contents and participant lists of the conference depict that such an engagement will benefit all. And more civil society engagement is required, especially in the context of Bangladesh’s growing geostrategic significance, diversifying trade and investment plan, and LDC graduation. To conclude, besides sound diplomatic engagement, civil societies from the EU and Bangladesh have the potential to play an important role in enhancing existing bilateral relations, especially in exchanging views, expanding networks, increasing coverage, promoting and brand, and countering false information, vested quarter’s influence program.

Image credit: Depositphotos

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