BRUSSELS — When the European Union's counterterrorism chief traveled to Pakistan a few years ago, all anyone wanted to talk about was free trade. Now, with a high-level Pakistani delegation in Brussels, those priorities may have changed.
An inaugural EU-Pakistan summit meeting kicks off Wednesday, with both sides showing an increased willingness to work with each other on counterterrorism measures. Though the delegation from Islamabad is to include high-level officials in commerce, finance and trade in addition to interior and foreign affairs, it’s been made clear that this meeting is going to focus on how the EU can help President Asif Ali Zardari fight the Taliban and other insurgents.
That acknowledgement is more significant than it sounds. For the most part, individual member states have handled anti-terrorism policies as part of their own national security strategies. The 27 states each have their own agendas with various foreign partners, which has made national security a difficult area for joint action.
So the EU as a single entity has not had — nor even tried to make — much of an impact in South Asia with regard to security policy, including counterterrorism, even as the threats from the region increased exponentially after the Sept. 11 attacks and the ensuing war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
But there is increasing recognition that counterterrorism must be considered along with the education, trade and anti-corruption programs that have long been funded in Pakistan with EU money.
“The EU needs to do more and to do differently,” said Greg Austin, vice president of the East West Institute. “They’re new partners in the security sense and it’s going to be really interesting to see how the relationship unfolds. It holds some interesting potential.”
What’s different about Pakistan, different even from the large military and reconstruction commitments made in Afghanistan, is Europe’s realization that its own security is dependent on helping the Pakistani government beat back the Taliban. That’s traditionally been a big gap between the United States and Europe but is becoming smaller all the time.
Raffaello Pantucci, a London-based researcher and writer, said the threat-perception gap stems from a “niggling sensation among European publics that we have brought a lot of trouble from South Asia upon ourselves through meddling in the region.”
Pantucci stresses that the situation is far too serious now to view in this way. Recent arrests in Europe prove his point that “groups in Pakistan’s lawless regions (are) providing training, inspiration and in some cases direct operational guidance for plots in Europe.”
The long-running and very bloody Kashmir conflict, now obscured in the headlines by the turmoil on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, is one the EU can't afford to ignore, Austin said. He noted it was the Kashmir dispute that provided impetus for the terrorists who attacked Mumbai last November.
The EU simply cannot go into the summit on Wednesday “without having a view on Kashmir and how the EU will, in the next five to 10 years, pursue a Kashmir policy,” he said.
Still, committing to a sustained policy of engagement in Pakistan will not be easy. “The EU can barely maintain its commitment to other countries around the world, whether it’s Afghanistan, or whether it’s the Congo or Sudan,” Austin said. “There’s a really big degree of overstretch.”
Aside from the need to deal with the conflicts and threats, there’s a welcome — and useful — place for the EU’s financial, commercial and development assistance to Pakistan, the areas that used to be the foundation of the relationship.
There is the massive humanitarian crisis of refugees created by the fighting in the Afghan border region, estimated at 2.4 million people so far. The United Nations’ appeal for $543 million to help these people had only seen 22 percent of that amount funded by the first week of June. (The EU responded in May with $7.6 million.)
At a Tokyo donors conference for Pakistan in April, External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner announced the EU would bump up its existing commitment of $69 million per year. “We will go further,” Ferrero-Waldner said, commending the Pakistani government on its counterterrorism efforts, saying the EU estimated spending $640 million by 2013. "Rural development and education will remain the focus of our assistance.”
Pakistan has long wanted a free-trade agreement with the EU and moves toward that end at the summit would be seen as a strong goodwill gesture from Brussels. And ultimately, assistance in the economic domain helps lay the groundwork for long-term aims of eliminating the factors that often feed terrorism — or at the very least, complacency against it.
As Austin puts it, the very serious challenges Pakistan faces certainly demand all the attention the EU is now giving. And more. It will require, he suggested, “lots of imagination, lots of hard work, lots of new thinking and fresh ideas … a more far-reaching investigation of the art of the possible.”
Read more on Europe:
Why are the Portuguese so glum?
The untouchable Berlusconi
Read more on Pakistan:
For refugees, reluctant acceptance of a new life
The ground truth in Islamabad