Monday, June 07, 2010 – There is an unfortunate perception that visits abroad by our leaders are akin to something like excursion trips but during Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani’s two-nation visit to Spain and Belguim, I got a vivid impression that he was sincerely working and trying his best to take Pakistan out of the turbulent waters. I say this because during his interaction with the leadership of the host countries, media and members of Pakistani community, he presented the country’s point of view on issues of vital interests in a convincing manner. As the visit took place in the backdrop of myriad challenges confronting the country, I was particularly impressed by the fact that the Prime Minister used the economic diplomacy to promote trade, commerce and foreign investment and to raise Pakistan’s profile on key regional and international economic issues. Earlier I accompanied the Prime Minister on his visits to China and USA and he always focused on Pakistan’s economic agenda. “We want trade and not aid”, the Prime Minister always emphasised. This time I noticed that Mr Gilani’s initiative evoked favourable response, following his interaction with Spanish and Belgiun dignitaries. I am convinced that in the given complex scenario, the person of Prime Minister Gilani is not less than a blessing for the country. I say so because Pakistan is suffering from image and identity crisis triggered partially by negative developments at home and partly due to propaganda unleashed by anti-Pakistan lobbies which are desperately trying to paint a bleak picture of the country. There is, therefore, a misperception about the country as most of the people look towards Pakistan through the prism of terrorism. The day the Prime Minister visited EU Council some Indians staged a demonstration: “Save Minorities of Pakistan” the placards highlighted. They were referring to the unfortunate Lahore incident of May 28 when about 80 Ahmadis lost their lives. But, Mr Gilani, who enjoys respect abroad as a unanimously and democratically elected Prime Minister of the country, with his pleasing personality, cool mindedness and soft-spoken style, beamed out a positive image of the country to the outside world.
Here I may point out that I got a chance to meet some of the Pakistanis as well as some Muslims from other countries both in Spain and Belgium and found that they were feeling perturbed over the ban on Hijab and Burqa, etc. There is discontentment even among Whites over the way the Western Governments are pursuing the war on terror. Some of the local intellectuals and men on street with whom I had a brief interaction, were unable to find any justification for killing of people in Iraq and Afghanistan and the ‘misuse’ of taxpayers’ money on wars, the end of which is known to no one. President Obama has, no doubt, started taking some corrective measures and hopefully Europe too would follow the suit to wipe out negative perceptions created by moves like banning Hejab and headscarf.
I was thrilled to visit Spain, where Muslims wrote one of the glorious chapters in the Islamic history. There are some prejudices against Muslims because of their adventures but neutral historians agree that in Andulus (southern Spain) Muslims built a civilization far superior to anything Spain had even known. My lifelong desire to visit Cordoba got fulfilled as I along with other media friends undertook a short train journey to visit the magnificent Cordoba mosque in the midst of which now stands an equally fascinating church. For understandable reasons myself and ordinary Muslims have great attachmentwith Cordoba, the city, which had once 700 mosques, some 60,000 palaces and 70 libraries one reportedly housing 500,000 manuscripts and employing a staff of researchers, illuminators and book binders. It would be interesting for many people to know that the famous Barcelona has the highest concentration of Pakistanis in all of Spain and majority of them are fromGujrat. It is because of this that some people call it ‘Spanish capital of Pakistan’.
The Prime Minister made the best use of his discussions with King of Spain Juan Carlos and his counterpart Jose Luis Zapatero. These talks were particularly important as Spain has assumed presidency of the EU, with which Pakistan was to have second summit in two days. Pakistan and Spain also signed two agreements including ‘comprehensive partnership’ which would pave the way for broadening all-encompassing cooperation between the two countries and that is why the Prime Minister too hoped that his visit would give new dimensions to their relations.
I have always been critical of the theory of ‘Clash of Civilizations’ propounded by Samuel P. Huntington and in this backdrop I felt satisfied that there are also voices of reasons in Europe, as Spain has launched the initiative of ‘Alliance of Civilizations’, which was appreciated by Prime Minister Gilani during his meeting with his Spanish counterpart.
Economic content of the Prime Minister’s visit prevailed prominence and its highlight was the second Pakistan-EU summit in Brussels on June 4, signifying the importance that the 27-member bloc attaches to Pakistan and its desire to give further impetus to a sustainable EU-Pakistan political and economic partnership. The summit was originally planned for April 21 but had to be rescheduled due to volcanic ash that disrupted air travel in Europe those days. That the Prime Minister squeezed his time for the summit close to announcement of the federal budget in Pakistan also speaks volumes about his desire to explore more avenues for economic collaboration and trade expansion, which are key to stimulate the economy. This summit was in continuation of the first one held on June 17, 2009 which was attended by President Asif Ali Zardari, when the two sides agreed to launch ‘strategic dialogue’ on development, education, science and technology, security and counter-terrorism. The outcome of the second summit made it clear that Pakistan had done its homework well during the last one year. The Prime Minister and members of his entourage not only raised awareness about Pakistan’s immense contributionsand sacrifices in the war on terror but also underlined the need for meaningful economic assistance which is vital to win this war for the sake of regional and global peace and prosperity. Diplomatic sources revealed to me that recognizing its role in the field of counter-terrorism, the European Union has in the recent years shown a growing urgency to boost ties with Pakistan. The realization is there but it is the question of translating this goodwill into substantial cooperation that could help alleviate the sufferings of Pakistani people. With this in mind, Pakistan once again emphasized the need for strong trading relationship to enhance bilateral trade through Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and by means of exploring preferential tariff regime in the form of GSP Plus.
That Pakistan-EU summit proved to be remarkable success was evident from the fact that the European Union agreed upon a five year Engagement Plan, outlining specific targets for joint actions. A joint statement issued at the end of the 2nd EU-Pakistan summit and a joint press conference by Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani and Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council and Jose Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission noted the civilian capacity building for law enforcement and extended full support to the National Counter-Terrorism Authority (NACTA) in becoming a fully operational and effective agency.
The EU also reiterated its commitment to support Pakistan’s economic and social development under the Development Cooperation Instrument (DCI) for the period 2011-2013 and stated that it was expected to rise by 50 per cent to Euro 75 million per annum.
However, the EU did not make any concrete commitment to one of the core issues raised by Pakistan i.e. grant of GSP plus status with President of the European Commission Jos’ Manuel Durao Barroso asking Pakistan to get engaged with the European Parliament on the issue. He hoped that progress could be made in this regard during the next one to two years.
Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani, who has entered into 3rd year of governance, is fully aware that the Government has not much time to waste and it has to deliver and that too quickly. As most of the problems of the common man relate to economy, he tried to allure investment and seek increased trade. Pakistan is at present excessively relying on foreign loans, which is nothing but a sheer path of self-destruction as the debt is piling up and shamefully the country has to take loans to pay back loans. Therefore, the stress of the Prime Minister on increased market access is quite understandable as only then Pakistan can stand on its own. However, the question arises as to what Pakistan would market even if it gets the desired access to European market. Industrial activity is almost at standstill due to security situation and crippling power shortage. Frequent increases in the prices of fuel, electricity and gas that hike the cost of production have rendered our products uncompetitive. The Prime Minister and his team of economic managers will first have to address these issues before we could reap benefits of greater market access. It should also be a matter of concern for Pakistan that EU is currently in the process of a similar agreement with India and if New Delhi reaches an FTA with EU before Islamabad, Pakistan will lose the biggest market as cheaper Indian goods will make inroads in the European market under 0.5 per cent tariff concessions.
Overseas Pakistanis are rightly considered potential ambassadors of the country and they can help project better image of Pakistan in the outside world. However, currently they are dismayed over uninterrupted flow of disappointing stories from their homeland and in this backdrop, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani made a conscientious effort to rekindle their confidence in Pakistan. His address to Pakistani community in Brussels was a morale booster for these expatriates as the PM highlighted the inherent strength of the country and gave them a vision for future, which would serve as a ray of hope.
I believe that the summit would bring about a qualitative upgradation in political and economic relations with EU. Pakistan strongly conveyed its desire to forge a comprehensive, lasting and strategic partnership with the EU to bring about political and economic stability in South Asia and the world. Immediate benefits of the summit might not be visible but a futuristic approach has been worked out to take Pakistan-EU relations to new heights in all areas. The two sides have agreed on a broader framework of cooperation but it is for the officials and respective ministries and departments to move quickly towards implementation. I would urge the Prime Minister to take personal interest to ensure that there is aggressive follow-up of the understanding reached with the European Union.
May I also briefly mention that I don’t endorse Prime Minister’s meetings with PPP leaders in Belgium. He should meet Pakistanis as such and not workers of his Party.