ISLAMABAD: The European Union and its member states have limited but important opportunities to lessen political polarisation in Pakistan.
“Imran Khan has reached out to influential member states in hopes of fixing the harm done by his anti-Western conspiracy narratives. These governments can, at the very least, hold conversations with him about the risks associated with his confrontation with the [Shehbaz] Sharif government. In dealings with Sharif, Europe should emphasise that Pakistan’s application to the new GSP+ scheme requires adherence to democratic norms, including respect for free speech and the freedom of association. The EU should also continue efforts to strengthen the capacities of civil society organisations and the media in exercising such fundamental freedoms,” is the advice given by the independent International Crisis Group (ICG) in its latest report The European Union EU Watch List.
As Pakistan heads from one crisis to another with no end in sight Islamabad has urged its partners, including EU member states, to exercise their influence with the IMF to fast-track the requested bailout.
“While advocating with the IMF for better loan terms, including targeted subsidies that ease hardship for the poorest, the EU and member states should, in exchange, urge Islamabad to pursue the economic reforms that would put Pakistan on a path to sustainable recovery. They should likewise press Sharif to resist the temptation to roll out populist schemes in hopes of gaining votes. But they need to be realistic about how far they can push Islamabad on reforms,” says the ICG.
Removal of fuel subsidies amid widespread suffering, during a heated electoral campaign, is a recipe for more violence in the streets. In addition, the EU’s future provision of GSP+ tariff concessions should not be made contingent on such reforms. Pakistan will continue to be in great need of such concessions from one of its largest trading partners.
Commenting on the coming national elections, the group says that the EU member states can also help with the elections themselves. They should assist the election commission and other government agencies, through technical expertise and financial aid, in reducing the gender gap in voter registration.
“In its dialogue with political parties, the EU should also raise the importance of protecting the rights of women candidates and voters. The credibility of elections hinges as much on women’s participation as it does on providing all competing parties an even playing field,” adds the report.
Brussels should also proceed with its plans to send an election expert mission. Such expert missions are much smaller and less visible than the EU’s robust Election Observation Missions, but they are nevertheless important for signalling the bloc’s commitment to a stable, democratic Pakistan, for which a peaceful transfer of power is a prerequisite.
Finally, European actors should help address concerns about insecurity in Pakistani regions that border Afghanistan, particularly Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In both quiet and public diplomacy, they should hold the Afghan Taliban to their pledge to prevent militants from attacking other countries, which they made in the 2020 peace agreement they signed in Qatar.
“Insisting that the Taliban keep the peace will also require giving them the tools for the job, such as technical assistance with border management. The EU and its member states should also encourage dialogue between Afghanistan and Pakistan about other security concerns, such as threats posed to both countries by the Islamic State Khorasan Province, the Islamic State’s local affiliate. The member states that have the means should also offer technical assistance and counter-insurgency training to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s police,” the report says, pointing to the country’s security challenges.
The EU and member states should continue humanitarian and development support to Pakistan’s merged tribal districts. As the economy contracts, such assistance will be crucial in these regions, which are among the poorest in the country.