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Bangladesh–EU Relations: How to Secure Trust Between Nations

On October 25, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited Brussels for the Global Gateway Forum 2023. This is the first such forum that the EU has held. Hasina’s participation in the forum seeks to establish official political relations between Bangladesh and the EU. Strengthening relations with Europe will boost the Bangladeshi economy for years ahead.
By
Sheikh Hasina

Dhaka, Bangladesh – March 26, 2023: President Abdul Hamid and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina pay tribute to the martyrs of the 1971 Liberation War at the National Martyrs’ Memorial at Savar in Dhaka. © Sk Hasan Ali / shutterstock.com

January 13, 2024 02:06 EDT
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In October, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina made a state visit to Brussels to join the Global Gateway Forum (GGF) 2023. The forum was held October 25–27. Participating in the forum was a high-profile move for Hasina, who faces reelection in January 2024. Engagement with the GGF is the next step in furthering ties between the EU and Bangladesh, a promising prospect for the developing South Asian country.

November’s was the first gathering of the GGF. The GGF brings European and international leaders together with leading thinkers and representatives of the private sector, civil society, financial institutions and international organizations. The theme of the year is, “Stronger Together through Sustainable Investment.”

The project is part of the Global Gateway Initiative. Under the initiative, Europe is seeking to make investments in transportation, healthcare, education and research globally. This is widely seen as an attempt to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

The 2023 summit provided a unique platform for Hasina to engage with world leaders, including European leaders on the sidelines of the forum.

Establishing a partnership

The bilateral relationship between the EU and Bangladesh began in 1973. In the last 50 years, Bangladesh has become a “new Asian tiger,” and the EU has been supportive throughout this journey. In 2001, the EU-Bangladesh cooperation agreement laid the foundation for trade relations in which Bangladesh enjoyed duty-free access to the European market under the Everything but Arms initiative. Under this initiative, imports to the EU from nations that make its “least developed countries” list are duty-free and quota-free. With this advantage, Bangladeshi trade with the EU ballooned. Today, the EU is the largest trading partner of Bangladesh, accounting for 19.5% of its total trade.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic hit neighboring countries hard, Bangladesh navigated the pandemic well with help from the EU. The country attained support for procuring COVID-19 vaccines with a $265.5 million loan, allowing Bangladesh to achieve high vaccination rates quickly. After an initial pandemic slump in 2020, economic growth quickly returned to an impressive 6.9% in 2021. 

In 2022, Bangladesh–EU relations reached a new pinnacle, cementing future areas of collaboration such as Bangladesh’s participation in the EU’s CRIMARIO project to improve maritime security and safety in the wider Indian Ocean.

The relationship has not been without its problems. European observers have expressed concerns regarding civic and human rights in Bangladesh. Particularly worrying is an ongoing lack of transparency in Bangladeshi elections. In 2023, ties between Bangladesh and the EU hit a snag when the EU announced that it would not be sending a full team of observers to supervise the January 2024 Bangladeshi elections. EU Ambassador to Bangladesh Charles Whiteley stated that the “necessary conditions” for such a mission were not met.

Yet, Bangladesh’s participation in the GGF reaffirms Bangladesh’s willingness to work with the EU.

Implications of the summit

The summit offers an opportunity to move beyond previous differences and create a more positive atmosphere to focus on shared goals and interests.

On the sidelines of the summit, Hasina had a bilateral meeting with Valdis Dombrobskis, who serves as Executive Vice President of the European Commission for An Economy that Works for People European Commissioner for Trade.

On the first day of the summit, Hasina delivered a speech praising the EU for launching the Global Gateway Initiative. She stated, “For Bangladesh, the EU is our trusted trade, development and humanitarian partner. We have fruitful cooperation in security, climate change and human mobility. Our shared values and commitments remain at the heart of our engagements with the EU.”

During the visit, Bangladesh and the EU concluded two investment packages. One is a Renewable Energy Package, worth more than $400 million, to assist in the green transition in Bangladesh. The other package, the Annual Action Plan for 2023, sees the EU investing $75 million in “public administration, and in employment, in skills and education, and green construction.” Both measures will certainly contribute to job growth in Bangladesh.

Hasina and President of the EC Ursula von der Leyen also launched negotiations on a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement to expand and develop the relationship between the EU and Bangladesh.

Hasina called for the EU to extend preferential treatment to Bangladesh under the Generalized System of Preferences. As Bangladesh develops and exits the “least developed countries” designation, it loses the advantages offered by the EU to those countries, such as Everything but Arms. Hasina hopes to keep the EU close in order to continue favorable trade conditions with the bloc and thus continue to boost Bangladesh’s economic growth.

The Rohingya issue also took center stage in meetings with EU leaders. Bangladesh is currently harboring 1.2 million Rohingya people in temporary shelters. These Rohingyas, who are mostly Muslim, were forced to flee Myanmar into neighboring Bangladesh in 2017. Hasina thanked the EU for its humanitarian assistance. The EU announced an additional $11.2 million in assistance for the refugees.

Planning ahead

In her speech, Hasina mentions that the EU and Bangladesh renewed their commitment to promote worker’s rights, as well as safe and regular migration through future partnerships, focusing more on strategic elements. Hasina also implored global leaders to take steps toward ending conflicts for a better future. “Connectivity is the lifeline for peace and progress. We need to prepare better for future crises,” she expressed.

With the world marred in nationalist wars, Hasina’s participation in various global summits in 2023, including the GGF, reinforces Bangladesh’s commitment to multilateralism. It shows that Bangladesh values international cooperation in an interconnected world.

[KeAmber Council edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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