EU wants to see Bangladesh as “important actor” among Bay of Bengal littorals ‘Three major players - US, China and Europe - to shape destiny’

Head of Delegation of the European Union to Bangladesh Ambassador Rensje Teerink has said she wants to see Bangladesh more and more as an "important actor" not only in the Bay of Bengal but also as part of Indo Pacific Strategy due to its strategic position and looking at how they can work together as "like-minded partners" in broad areas.

"I think there's a lot of (things) we can cover," she said, highlighting the geopolitical aspect of cooperation mentioning that the EU is open to all countries wishing to cooperate with it.

While delivering the keynote speech at a virtual dialogue on "Bangladesh-European Union Relations: Prognosis for the Future", the Ambassador said they want to continue working with their like-minded partners in this "turbulent world."

And, the Ambassador thinks, here Bangladesh will have an important role to play, and if there is "one thing" that she is going to take back to Brussels is to keep Bangladesh on the agenda.

Ambassador Teerink said she is aware that it is yet the case to do strategic partnership with Bangladesh but they at least need to keep it on the agenda.

Cosmos Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Cosmos Group, hosted the dialogue as part of its ongoing Ambassadors Lecture Series.

The opening remarks were delivered by Cosmos Foundation Chairman Enayetullah Khan. The session was chaired by Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, renowned scholar-diplomat and former Advisor on Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh Caretaker Government.

Distinguished Fellow at Centre for Policy Dialogue Dr Debapriya Bhattacharya, former BGMEA President and Chairperson of Mohammadi Group Dr Rubana Huq, founder Chairman of Policy Research Institute Dr Zaidi Sattar and Prof at International Relations Department of Dhaka University Imtiaz Ahmed and Honorary Advisor Emeritus, Cosmos Foundation Ambassador (Retd) Tariq A Karim comprised the panel of discussants.

The Bay within Indo-Pacific

The EU looks at the Bay of Bengal as an integral part of their Indo Pacific Strategy and builds on these political and geopolitical dynamics. Ambassador Teerink, who will be heading a small division looking at regional cooperation with Asia in her next appointment within the EU, said the Indo-Pacific region is home to 60% of the world's population producing 60% of global GDP, contributing two-thirds of the current global growth.

By 2030, she said, the overwhelming majority (90%) of the 2.4 billion new members of the middle class entering the global economy will live in the Indo-Pacific. "I will have enough opportunity and will make sure that Bangladesh is kept high on the agenda."

Enayetullah Khan said the EU has been one of the closest partners of Bangladesh as it is supporting Bangladesh in addressing several key challenges - poverty, good governance, diversification of manufacturing capabilities and improvement of the enabling environment for doing business.

As Bangladesh is poised to graduate from the list of LDCs, Khan said Bangladesh will be looking to its friends for assistance as an expanded market access is critical for Bangladesh's progress.

He said the European Union was founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including those of minorities. These enlightened values are held to be integral to the European way of life, and rightly so, since Europe was the home of The Enlightenment, Khan said.

"But the EU as a force for good on the world stage really started gathering momentum and asserting itself around the time of its Fourth Enlargement, which was in 1995," he added.

Dr Iftekhar said he believes the Bangladesh-EU cooperation is a natural outcome of the commonalities that both sides share and these make for an enduring relationship.

Talking about the geopolitics of the future, he said, there will be three major players - the USA, China and Europe - shaping their destiny. "Sadly, we appear to be heading for a world fearing confrontation rather than collaboration."

He perceives that the developing Asia, including Bangladesh, does not want to be a "stalking horse" for others' negative agendas. "We believe Bangladesh-EU relationship can act as an example of a cross-group cooperation which would be worthy of evolution."

A seat for China

The EU envoy said amid all the dynamics in geoplitics, the regional order is increasingly challenged and there is of course US-China "geopolitical competition" that is intensifying and it is leading to a rise in power politics.

She referred to "EU-China: A strategic outlook 2019" and said it identified both as a partner and a competitor. "We are not excluding China at all from this. It is not that anti-China approach. We do not find it that way. The cooperation is open to all."

Ambassador Teerink thinks it is a little bit comparable to Bangladesh's approach towards India and China which has been very, very balanced. She said the EU is already a connectivity superpower and they are ready to step up cooperation with the countries in the Indo-Pacific to do more.

Talking about security architecture, she said there is one project they are looking at with regards to whether they can do something for Bangladesh as it addresses critical maritime routes in the Indo Pacific. "It is basically to make maritime routes more secure against piracy. There is something we are in discussion at the moment whether it can be extended to Bangladesh."

Beyond connectivity and security, she laid emphasis on climate change, biodiversity, research, innovation and digitalization, noting that the whole strategy is further proof of their commitment.

An 'Ambassador of Bangladesh'?

Debapriya Bhattacharya said the EU is a great supporter for Bangladesh in the global arena in this very 'disturbing' moment or this very 'unsettling' moment. "I see the European Union as one of the biggest friends for Bangladesh in the global arena."

He said the EU believes in inclusive multilateralism and this is very critical. Debapriya said the EU talks about equal but not necessarily full reciprocity in this case and it has a pro-climate action approach which is very important for green transformation both in mitigation and adaptation.

Dr Rubana Huq thanked the EU envoy for giving extraordinary support during the initial days of Covid-19 pandemic. When the pandemic got them first, Rubana said the EU Ambassador was one of the few Ambassadors who did not shy away from the responsibility and listened to the apparel makers as they were having so many reactions from the buyers such as overnight cancellations. "She was right there by our side."

Dr Zaidi Sattar said the European Union has been Bangladesh's main supporter through trade - not aid - and that is the important point to make. "We hope that this continues even after graduation in 2026."

Former Ambassador Tariq Karim said two things - the Westphalian state paradigm and the concept of regional cooperation--that Europe gifted the world. "Both have in their own senses triggered by waves in the rest of the world."

He, however, voiced disappointment over Europe's failure to emerge as a strong political power in the global arena. "Europe didn't quite take up the mantle that it had inbuilt in it of asserting itself more in the global arena although it is in a sense as a collective the third superpower in the world."

Tariq said though the EU is now giving much focus on the African continent, it should not ignore Asia considering the size of its population.

He said the EU should work more closely with the Asian countries for its own economic interests alongside maintaining world peace, world stability and regional peace and stability. About the importance of the Indo-Pacific region, Tariq said the Bay of Bengal is located at the heart of the Indo-Pacific that actually connects the Indian Ocean with the Pacific Ocean.

"Certainly, for geostrategic reasons, certain big powers have started focusing on it because of various issues related to their economic and strategic wellbeing. So, it is something which is in the EU's own interests to look at more closely and devote more time and attention in this region."

He urged the EU not to press down so hard on Bangladesh's many shortcomings and blemishes but to take a look at the many good things the country has. Tariq said South East Asia is the least integrated region in the world today, but just 75 years ago it was the most integrated region. "We should now focus on how to reconnect the region and the EU can help in this regard by sending out ideas and sharing its experiences."

He hoped that Rensje, who has been the EU Ambassador in Bangladesh, will be the Ambassador of Bangladesh when she goes back to Brussels. "That's how you can help not only Bangladesh but also this region."

Prof Imtiaz Ahmed said Ambassador Teerink has been a good friend of Bangladesh throughout her time here.

He hoped that some of the things he pointed out would be taken back and chased by the outgoing Ambassador. "We hope you will not forget Bangladesh...We'll continue our friendship with you forever."

The event was part of the resumption by the Cosmos Foundation of its very popular "Ambassadors Lecture Series" that used to be held in Dhaka earlier, with the deliberations now being held online due to the situation of the pandemic. In recent months, apart from this discussion on Bangladesh-Japan cooperation, such roundtables have been held on Bangladesh's relations with the United States, India, China and Japan.

Additional reporting by AR Jahangir, Mohammad Syfullah and Md Ishtiak Hossain

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