In an age where one needn’t go far to sense that the international order that had sustained since the end of the Second World War has by now given way to a state of flux, it becomes all the more important for nations to be able to count on a set of steady, consistent relationships within the family of nations. It may not be unique, but the great, enduring value of Bangladesh’s relations with the EU can be found in its steadiness. “All-weather friends” is a bit of a cliche term that finds currency in this part of the world as just about the highest badge of comity between states (most notably trumpeted by the Pakistanis and the Chinese to advertise their bond). A more fitting way to describe the EU as it relates to Bangladesh, circa 2019, would be as our most seasoned partner in development, on a par with the Japanese.
The good news is that this partnership is set to endure, in much the same shape or form, through the foreseeable future as well. That at least, would have to be the overriding takeaway from proceedings at the sixth edition of the Cosmos Dialogue, that debuted its promising new Ambassador Lecture Series, a brainchild of Cosmos Foundation Chairman Enayetullah Khan, on February 2. Titled ‘Bangladesh-European Union Relations: Prognosis for the Future’, the keynote speaker was of course none other than the always engaging, and refreshingly down-to-earth Rensje Teerink, now well into her second year as the EU ambassador/Head of Delegation in Bangladesh. A striking figure with her long, flowing hair and preference for ethnic jewellery, her tenure has already been marked by a reputation for speaking sincerely, and the will to keep learning.
A true specialist when it comes to South Asia, it is instructive to delve into Ms Teerink’s background to glean what lies in the subtle yet nuanced approach that she has brought to the role. Born in Luxembourg, Ambassador Rensje Teerink is a Dutch national. She studied Cultural Anthropology/Non-Western Sociology at the University of Amsterdam, which itself tells you something. But hold on there’s more: she also specialised in Asian studies, and as part of that conducted extensive field research in western India (Gujarat and Maharashtra).
She joined the European Commission in 1995 as administrator for South Asia. In 2006 she was appointed Deputy Head of Unit for India, Nepal, Bhutan and SAARC. In 2011 she joined the newly created European External Action Service (from where this information is sourced) as Deputy Head of Division for the same countries. She was nominated by then-EU High Representative Catherine Ashton (effectively the EU’s foreign minister) as EU Ambassador/Head of Delegation to Nepal and EU Representative to SAARC in April 2013, her last posting before moving to Bangladesh.
Now there are some in Bangladesh who, as recently as November/December felt compelled to question the the EU’s commitment to Bangladesh and where it was headed, based primarily on two factors: firstly, the decision to not deploy an observer mission for the parliamentary elections held on December 30, on top of persistent rumours that Accord, the alliance of European buyers of Bangladesh’s most transformative industry, export-oriented RMG, was on the verge of disbanding. Formed in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, with a mandate to put Bangladesh’s innumerable factories in order, it has played the major role in a wave of upgrades sweeping through the industry that despite the complaints of owners, leaves the industry even better placed to compete internationally in the highly competitive global textile market. Someday even the owners who were forced to pay for upgrades out of their pockets, will look back on this period and be grateful for Accord and Alliance (the corresponding group of American buyers), as well as the more limited GOB-ILO.
Coming after Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, as always magisterial in his role chairing the Dialogue, had set the context for the day’s discussion with clarity and erudition, Ambassador Teerink’s contribution served to allay all apprehensions of any dilution in the relationship going forward. The underlying message throughout, was the futility of being swayed by news cycles, which is precisely the tendency that brooks the doubts mentioned above, and putting faith rather in enduring values - even when they may not quite jive. Painting a more comprehensive picture of Bangladesh’s “success story” than is otherwise maintained these days, she made it a point to mention all the sections of society that played a part in this story, including the work of the NGO sector that really came to the fore in the Nineties, and vibrant civil society engagement. She made the case for both to continue in a similar vein, for growth and development to be sustainable.
Now of course the EU wouldn’t be the EU, nor indeed an honest friend or reliable partner, were they to find everything in order or as they should be, as long as the bilateral trade figure crossed the hefty $20 billion mark, as it has since 2017. Ambassador Teerink has the gift of coming off as naturally sensitive, and so these too were delivered in a manner that finds her hosts more receptive. Accordingly she didn’t back down on championing the cause of labour rights, preciously held in the countries of the EU (witness the Gilets Jaunes movement in France) and specifically called for greater freedom of association to be accommodated in Bangladesh’s labour laws, even as she acknowledged recent advances. It was easy to surmise that evolving the condition of labour to espouse greater dignity as well as aspiration, will stand as the most important step for Bangladeshi exports to qualify for the EU’s flagship GSP+ trade regime, a level above the current duty-free, quota-free regime, Everything But Arms, that as the name suggests applies for all items except weaponry.
The breadth of Ambassador Teerink’s presentation made clear that even in world where the geopolitical sands are shifting, the friendship between Bangladesh and the EU is set to endure, based as it is on a foundation of mutual benefit. It is mature enough to recognise and respect differences, which pose no barrier to synergising around values that are commonly held. As each continues on its own path of finding its place in the emergent paradigm of international relations, the best days may still be ahead of us.
Accelerating growth the challenge for new govt: EU
Appreciating Bangladesh’s very impressive economic performance over the last one decade, the European Union (EU) on Saturday said sustaining and accelerating this growth is the real challenge for the new government.
“I think sustaining and accelerating this growth is, of course, the real challenge for the new government,” said EU Ambassador to Bangladesh Rensje Teerink while delivering her keynote speech at Cosmos Dialogue at Six Seasons Hotel in the city on February 2.
The Ambassador said they are also very keen to pursue and enhance engagement with this new government with a view to contributing and supporting the deepening of democracy without which, she thinks, a sustainable development will not happen.
Cosmos Foundation organised the symposium titled ‘Bangladesh-European Union Relations: Prognosis for the Future’ as part of its Ambassador Lecture Series.
Foreign Secretary Md Shahidul Haque attended the event as the chief guest, which was held with Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, Principal Research Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), National University of Singapore, in the chair. Cosmos Foundation Chairman Enayetullah Khan delivered the welcome address.
Foreign Secretary Haque said the relationship between Bangladesh and the EU is a very mature and dynamic one as both sides understand each other’s concerns well.
“You must have noticed by now that Bangladesh is not only looking at the EU but it’s also the centerpiece of our foreign policy,” he said adding that not only the EU is evolving but Bangladesh is also evolving -- the relationship is evolving.
The EU Ambassador laid emphasis on equal distribution of the benefit of Bangladesh’s economic expansion among all the people saying that poverty can only be reduced partially if the growth dividend is not distributed among all equally.
“I don’t want to give a negative picture because, of course, the bottom line is that Bangladesh’s story is a success story,” she said mentioning that they welcome the very strong vision and planned graduation from its LDC status by 2024 and to become an upper middle-income country by 2021.
Ambassador Teerink stressed the importance of export diversification and boosting foreign and local investment to help the country grow in a faster way. “So, my point of export diversification should be taken as a political priority.”
GSP+ and Bangladesh
Talking about the passage from the EU’s current Everything but Arms (EBA) to GSP+ trade privilege, the EU Ambassador said GSP+ is not something that is automatic to become eligible as Bangladesh will have to ratify, implement and accept 27 core conventions on human rights, labour rights, environmental and good governance standards.
“This is an important task. I think it would be good to prioritise this and set up relevant taskforce to establish a multi-annual reform action plan,” said Ambassador Teerink.
In this context, Foreign Secretary Haque said they will have to move on the GSP+ and time has come to discuss the matter.
He said they have already discussed it that the whole business environment has to be revisited within the GSP+. “So, that’s a big chunk of area.”
The EU envoy said a tangible progress has taken place in factory safety, thanks to the joint efforts carried out by Accord and Alliance, the government of Bangladesh and other partners.
She, however, said much more needs to be done, especially in the area of freedom of association.
Ambassador Teerink said sustainable industrial development would be difficult to achieve in Bangladesh without any effective and functioning social dialogue.
On business environment, the EU Ambassador said the key ministries should be given robust political authority to design, coordinate and implement policy reforms to improve the business environment.
She said there are many laws in the country but it is important to see those are implemented properly.
The EU Ambassador said they are committed to working with the civil society of Bangladesh as they look back the enormous role played by big NGOs in Bangladesh.
She said this is an area they want to continue working together as the civil society with all its diversity represents a crucial component of any democracy. “So, it’s an asset to promote good governance and improve accountability.”
Ambassador Teerink said they wish to explore cultural diplomacy and showcase Bangladesh’s cultural richness to Europe apart from strengthening people-to-people contact.
She said human rights are the integral part of the EU-Bangladesh relationship, and they see those as crucial for stability, economic growth and for the development of Bangladesh.
Ambassador Teerink said the cooperation between Bangladesh and the EU has been gradually expanding beyond the cooperation agreement.
“That is always very positive,” she said adding that the relationship should not be confined to signed documents.
Ambassador Teerink said Bangladesh has played such a crucial role over the Rohingya issue which was appreciated widely across the world.
“We’ve to thank the people of Bangladesh for their generous support to the Rohingya community,” she said adding that the EU supports voluntary, safe, sustainable and dignified return of Rohingyas to their place of origin in compliance with international laws.
The Ambassador said they have also committed to continuing their efforts to mobilise political support, humanitarian assistance at bilateral and multilateral levels to help bring about a lasting solution to this crisis.
Sharing EU’s concerns in a few areas, she said they remain concerned about the Digital Security Act that was adopted in 2018.
The EU Ambassador said they still call upon the government of Bangladesh to continue consultation on this law to make sure this act is brought in accordance with the international declaration of human rights and the constitution of Bangladesh.
Dr Iftekhar said both Europe and Bangladesh, in different ways, are looking forward to a period of intense cooperation. “Is this too much to expect? Are we aiming too high? Are we being too ambitious? I don’t think so,” he added.
He said many countries like Bangladesh traditionally saw the UK as the gateway to Europe. “We need to focus more on Europe directly.”
For Bangladesh certainly, Dr Iftekhar said, EU’s policy of unimpeded market access for Bangladeshi products under EBA umbrella has been a great boom to RMG export. “Bangladesh’s RMG industry has been the locomotive of our growth, prospect and prosperity.”
Enayetullah Khan said Cosmos Foundation’s Ambassador Lecture Series is designed to expand understanding of bilateral relations between the country’s guest speakers and Bangladesh community.
He said they will continue to hold similar events in the future as the idea would reflect upon and expand the understanding of key issues.
Secretary (Asia & Pacific) at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Mahbub Uz Zaman, German Ambassador in Dhaka Peter Fahrenholtz, France Ambassador Marie-Annick Bourdin, UN Resident Coordinator in Dhaka Mia Seppo, British Deputy High Commissioner to Bangladesh Kanbar Hossein-Bor, prominent businessman Salahuddin Kasem Khan, Managing Director of Mohammadi Group Dr Rubana Huq and former diplomats also spoke on the occasion.
Contributions of Note
As always, the latest edition of the Cosmos Dialogue was notably enriched by the contributions from an engaged and well-informed batch of participants from outside the designated panel of speakers. Here we reproduce excerpts of the most important points raised during the plenary (in the order that they spoke.)
Rubana Huq (Managing Director of RMG major Mohammadi Group): “The international narrative around labour must change, and we hope the ambassador can help us in that regard. Too much emphasis is placed on the negative sides. Coming to Accord and Alliance, I think the time for prescriptions is over. The industry is now mature, and must shift to self-monitoring. We must prove ourselves ready for that. We should be able to look after ourselves. They have done a wonderful job, but it’s now time to go!”
German Ambassador Peter Fahrenholtz: “On the garment industry, the pictures that went around the world or at least Germany, in the beginning of January, of the massive demonstrations were not good at all, and reflect something is not right in the sector. My government firmly believes the efforts of cooperation in the garment sector must continue. We believe Accord should be continued. No doubt, tremendous progress has been made, I myself have visited a number of export-oriented factories that are top-notch. But the job is not complete, and for my government, it is extremely important to continue doing this work. Hence, we strongly suggest that Accord be continued, with the excellent cooperation of the Bangladeshi authorities.”
Salahuddin Kasem Khan (AK Khan Group): “Even in Roman times, textiles from Bengal clothed the empire’s subjects. Bangladesh will continue to be a world leader in the textile sector. My larger point would be that while two of our development partners Japan and China are investing in hard infrastructure, my advice to the EU would be to get in to invest in our soft infrastructure. A World Bank report says that the two biggest weaknesses facing Bangladesh are in terms of skills and entrepreneurship. Which is why I would like the EU to do for us here what it did for China, which was to set up the best institute of management in Shanghai. Europe’s technical institutions should be linked up with their counterparts here.”
French Ambassador Marie-Annick Bourdin: “We feel there is scope for further discussion and dialogue on issues and human rights. France is working on some water-related projects. The rivers around Dhaka are a point of concern for us. We are not the only ones - the AIIB, the ADB, who we work with, are all concerned. The degradation of the rivers concerns us. The commission in charge of the rivers must enhance its work, if needed enhance its “striking force”.
UN Resident Coordinator Mia Seppo: The UN and EU share many values as well as a close partnership defending values that unfortunately are being questioned around the world today, even as we speak. The presence of inequality across the world is one of the better examples to demonstrate that the Sustainable Development Goals agenda is a global agenda, not just one for the so-called developing countries. The fact that there is growing inequality in other countries is a poor excuse for accepting inequality in whichever society we belong. Inequality over time is a threat to social cohesion.
This is a country that can be very proud of its development story, the miracle that has happened since 1979. Having worked in LDCs, or with the so-called “bottom 1 billion” all my life, Bangladesh is the first country I will be witnessing graduate out of the LDC bracket. Bangladesh can now fund its own development. But we must note that LDC graduation will require a change in roles and responsibilities on the part of all of us.”