The latest edition of the Cosmos Dialogue was held in the aftermath of the extremely heightened sense of tensions in the Middle East, that in the preceding week had threatened to spill over - some would say ‘finally’, after over 40 years of constant provocation and countless proxy wars - into full-blown war between the United States and Iran. Even though the leadership on both sides had eventually stepped back from the precipice, exhibiting a mutual disinclination towards a conflict with no discernible endgame, as the participants and guests for the Dialogue gathered in the lobby or the tea room of the Six Seasons hotel in Gulshan on the morning of January 11, the antagonism between Iran and the US was on everyone’s lips, and it was reassuring to hear the deliberations of those steeped in the ways of nation-states and statesmen (for US-Iran opinions from the Dialogue, see previous story).
In the circumstances, the distinguished speaker who had been pencilled in months earlier to deliver the keynote address for this edition turned out to be almost serendipitous. Dr Danilo Türk had served as Slovenia’s first Ambassador to the United Nations, following the country’s birth in 1992 (alongside several others, then and even years later) from the embers of the former Yugoslavia. After serving eight years representing his nation in the world’s highest forum for diplomacy, at the turn of the century he went on to join the UN staff as a global civil servant, and would spend the next 5 years as the organisation’s Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs.
The suave and angular diplomat would go on to even greater things upon returning to his home country, elected president in 2007 and serving out a five-year term notable for its multilateral bend. His years in New York had earned him growing repute as an important thinker on contemporary international relations. In New York, within that vast churn of races, creeds and nationalities that is the UN system, he had also struck up a friendship with Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, a Bangladeshi career diplomat whose own tenure as Dhaka’s permanent representative to the UN in NYC spanned 2001-7. For all intents and purposes, it was that friendship which brought him to Dhaka well over a decade later, delivering the keynote at a program chaired by Dr Chowdhury.
The title of the keynote had been set as ‘EU and the Contemporary Global Scenario: A Reflection for the Future’. Since leaving the President’s Palace in Ljubljana, Dr Turk has continued to maintain an international profile, and ran for the post of UN secretary-general in the 2016 election, that was won by the ex-Portuguese president, Antonio Guterres. He is also a member, and in fact since January 1, 2020 the President of Club de Madrid, an alliance of democratically elected global leaders who continue to work for the promotion of democratic norms and principles.
Tour de Horizon
Taking the lectern after welcome remarks by Cosmos Foundation Chairman Enayetullah Khan and an introduction by Dr Chowdhury, Turk’s superb keynote would last just about 50 minutes, and take in the entire sweep of contemporary affairs, sprinkled tastefully with history stretching back to the birth of Bangladesh (as viewed from the extremely interesting lens that was the then-Yugoslavia), and policy cooperation among the EU nations, including how it needs to be reconsidered and redefined.
“When it comes to values in the European context, it has to be proven in daily practice - not only in the speeches of politicians. EU has to define solidarity within the union in ways which are adequate to our time,” he said.
“EU was a big success and continues to be a big success because it is a union of states which all believed in the idea of the welfare state…the departure from there to something else is usually accompanied by difficulties,” Dr Türk remarked.
Dr Türk mentioned that European Green Deal has to be designed in a way which will take care of all the questions regarding solidarity among the EU nations. He also expressed his views about the Brexit situation and how it can affect the EU.
“EU has to deal with political problems as they arise…the whole Brexit debate is moving to a new stage and it is not going to be simple,” said Dr Türk.
“Trade deals negotiated between the United Kingdom and EU this year is likely to be a complicated discussion because what needs to be avoided are a hard border, quotas and other harsh instruments that can make trade and economic cooperation difficult,” he said, and expressed enthusiasm and excitement even, about new possibilities for the EU-UK relationship.
“EU would like to keep the supply chains as they are without interruptions. We do not wish opportunities for the service providers of the United Kingdom to EU to be severely diminished or vice versa,” he said. He urged everyone to look at Brexit as a ‘practical arrangement’. In many ways, his attitude towards Brexit reflected the fatigue that had set in among Europeans over the last 3-and-half years, that rendered anymore overtures to their departing cousin meaningless.
On a point raised by the director-general of the Foreign Ministry in Dhaka, that categorically named the UK as “Bangladesh’s best friend in the EU”, and painted Brexit as a potential source of deterioration in relations between the EU and Bangladesh (without Britain as some sort of bridge, the suggestion seemed to be), Dr Türk graciously conceded the point before offering his own solution.
“As far as coordination between the European Union and Bangladesh is concerned, of course there’s no substitute for the UK. The UK is unique. The UK is great and the UK is outside the European Union,” he said.
He then suggested Bangladesh work closely with the European Commission, with the insight that its new leadership wanted it to be more of a ‘geopolitical’ creature than an institution, inviting us to think about the possibilities from that objective, and predicting the bloc is going to become an important partner for the country.
“[My suggestion is to] go and see Josep Borrell [the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and Vice-President of the European Commission]. He’s one of your first partners,” he said.
Ties between Bangladesh and the EU in fact have been growing ever stronger since 1973. The bloc is one of the largest development partners of Bangladesh. Every year, Bangladesh receives about € 70-80 million as development assistance. All the EU assistance to Bangladesh is provided as grants, according to the government. At the interactive discussion after the keynote speech, foreign affairs experts shared their thoughts focusing on the European Union and contemporary global issues.
One of them was Rensje Teerink, Ambassador of the European Union to Bangladesh, who pointed out that trade facilities provided by EU to Bangladesh has been a “major instrument” that has really helped the country more than the bilateral aid portfolio. The facilities are provided to about 45 LDC countries but Bangladesh is the one which made the most out of it.
“Bangladesh has reaped about 70 percent trade facilitation of all goods that go into the European Union, mainly based on the readymade garments (RMG) sector,” she said. “I think this has been enormously helpful. There’s no other organisation in the world that earns this kind of privilege to Bangladesh.”
Citing the Export Promotion Bureau, Ambassador Teerink said Bangladesh’s export to EU was worth $10.74 billion in the first two quarters of the current fiscal year. The World Trade Organisation’s World Trade Statistical Review 2019 said Bangladesh has become the leading importer of services among LDCs, she went on to relay.
She said Dhaka has made commendable progress but it must do more to make sure that practices at its factories are in compliance with the ILO standards if Bangladesh wants to continue enjoying trade facilities being provided by the EU. Teerink said more progress is needed and noted that the trade facilities provided by the EU has been a “major instrument” that has helped Bangladesh make the most out of it.
“Bangladesh has reaped about 70 percent trade facilitation of all goods that go into the European Union, mainly based on the readymade garments (RMG) sector,” she said. “It’s in Bangladesh’s interest to work with us (EU)…”
‘Borders are disappearing’
In his welcome remarks, Enayetullah Khan said throughout the past year, Cosmos Foundation remained focused on its goals. “We’ve dedicated ourselves generating among our friends, strategic insights on pressing issues of the day offering policy options in addressing them.“
He said the foundation has held a number of stimulating events with distinguished speakers from across the world on thematic topics as well as Bangladesh’s external relations.
“In February, we’re planning a symposium that should be of interest to all those interested in the theoretical aspects of foreign policy making. It’d be a debate on the values that shapes as policy in the east and west,” Khan informed the audience.
Dr Chowdhury said the world is now too interconnected, and the borders of regions are disappearing.
“More so than borders of individual countries which are protected by rules of sovereignty, regions are not. Regional organisations are often hostage to relationship between principal protagonists like Saarc has been rendered dormant by the acerbic relations between India and Pakistan,” he noted.
But, he said, the EU remains a supreme example of nations burying the hatchet and coming together. “If there’s collaboration between countries at a functional level, then eventually the core dispute at more critical levels will dissipate.”
Dr Iftekhar, also a former adviser to the caretaker government, said Brexit will have its impact not just on Europe, but even on countries like Bangladesh.
“Europe will for all intents and purposes continue to be a priority in our external relations.”