Sheikh Hasina’s Visit to Brussels, 2023: Building a Win-Win Framework of Bangladesh-EU Relations

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At the invitation of the European Commission (EC) President Ursula von der Leyen, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is visiting Brussels to attend Global Gateway Forum to be held on 25-26 October. Representatives of governments from the European Union and from around the world with the private sector, civil society, leading thinkers, financing institutions, and international organizations are expected to participate in the forum. Since it is an invitation-only program, Sheikh Hasina’s participation at the Global Gateway Forum will be a new gateway for consolidating mutual diplomatic understanding and trust between Bangladesh and the EU and enhancing the image of Bangladesh to the world community. The visit can be an imperative to strengthen Bangladesh-EU relations in several ways.

First, Bangladesh has become a new partner of EU in aviation industry. Bangladesh inked a deal with France for the purchase of 10 Airbus aircraft worth US$3.2 billion in September 2023 which is a milestone in Bangladesh-EU relations. Airbus is eyeing to expanding aviation business in Bangladesh riding on high economic growth and ever-increasing consumer market in the country.

Second, the visit will provide an opportunity to showcase the success of Bangladesh in building mega projects in infrastructure to the European leaders and beyond. Examples can be brought from the successful completion of the Padma Multipurpose Bridge. The construction of the bridge was financed by the Bangladesh government, which is obviously a flaunting achievement for the country. Additionally, Bangladesh may take pride in presenting the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Tunnel constructed under the Karnaphuli River, which is the first underwater road tunnel in South Asia. This is a milestone in the communication and transportation development arena of the country. Global attention could be brought to the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant, a tremendous achievement in the sustainable power development sector of Bangladesh. In addition to these infrastructural developments, Bangladesh may showcase its success of the COVID-19 vaccination program, self-sufficiency in food production and increased literacy rate. All these achievements are signs of an emerging Bangladesh.

Third, the Prime Minister (PM) will have a number of meetings with the leaders of European countries on the sidelines of the forum which will be crucial to deepen Bangladesh-EU relations to a new height. For instance, Bangladesh premier will have a bilateral meeting with EC President Ursula von der Leyen and with Executive Vice President of the European Commission and European Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis. A meeting with European Investment Bank President Werner Hoyer will also be held. The PM will hold a bilateral meeting with her Belgian counterpart Alexander De Croo and Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina may exploit these meetings to persuade the European delegates to greater cooperation and strengthen the bilateral relationship with Bangladesh.

Fourth, Bangladesh and the EU are expected to announce the elevation of their 50-year partnership to a new height. A loan support agreement of 350 million euros on the renewable energy sector will be signed between the Bangladesh government’s Economic Relations Department (ERD) and European Investment Bank. During this visit, the Bangladesh government and European Commission will sign five different grant agreements of 70 million euros on Bangladesh’s social sectors. Thus, this visit can be an opportunity to forge Bangladesh-EU economic ties to a new height.

Fifth, this visit will be imperative to attract European investment in Bangladesh. Before leaving to Brussels, Bangladesh Prime Minister had a meeting with Switzerland Ambassador in Bangladesh Reto Siegfried Renggli and sought Swiss investments in the special economic zones (SEZs) in Bangladesh which underscores Sheikh Hasina’s emphasis on attracting European investments in Bangladesh.PM appealed to the Swiss Ambassador to make a “Mini-Switzerland” in Bangladesh while ensuring that the government is ready to provide land. Thus signaling to the improvement in the ease of doing business in Bangladesh. In addition, during delivering her speech at the Gateway Forum, Bangladesh Prime Minister can attract more European investment in Bangladesh in different areas, including infrastructure, renewable energy, financial services, agriculture and the agro-processing sector, textile and ready-made garment, as well as aviation, aerospace, ICT and technology.

Sixth, Bangladesh-EU ties have transformed from aid dependence to economic partnership. Since independence, the relationship between Bangladesh and the EU has been marked by aid dependence. However, under the strong leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh has flourished in the garments industry and the EU is one of the biggest importers of Bangladeshi garments products. Besides RMG products (90%), Bangladesh exports footwear, frozen fish and agro products to the EU market. According to the European Delegation in Bangladesh, Bangladesh exports to EU rose from 9 billion euro to 19 billion euro between 2011 and 2019. During the same period, EU exports to Bangladesh increased from 1.7 billion euro to 3.4 billion. Thus, Bangladesh and EU needs to sign Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement to further strengthen economic partnership.

Seventh, Bangladesh collaborated with the European Union in a technical project titled EU-BGD Joint Collaboration on Blue Economy (BE). The project was for two years between August 2016 and July 2018. Maritime Affairs Unit under the Bangladesh Foreign Ministry coordinated the project. The aim of the project was to formulate a national vision for Blue Economy projects in Bangladesh. However, due to economic, manpower and technical limitation, Bangladesh could not explore its vast potentials in Blue Economy sectors. In this context, the upcoming visit can be an opportunity to strengthen Blue Economy cooperation between Bangladesh and EU.

Eighth, both Bangladesh and the European Union share similar values, i.e. democracy, rules-based global order, multi-cultural and multi-polar world based on global peace and cooperation. Both Bangladesh and EU promotes peace and development centric international relations. Thus, this visit can create an impetus to work jointly in the promotion of world peace, prosperity and security.

Ninth, according to a report by Eurostat, there is a persistent labor shortage in all skill levels in Europe. Labor shortage is prevalent in science, technology, healthcare, construction etc. In addition, it is expected that the demands for high-skilled and low-skilled workers will continue to grow due to ageing and green and digital transitions. By 2035, there will be 50 million fewer working people in the EU job market compared to 2010. This labor shortage could be met by supplying high-skilled and low-skilled workers from Bangladesh. Therefore, Bangladesh and the EU can enhance cooperation in this arena.

The bottom-line is that promoting Bangladesh-EU relations is of critical interests to both parties. Bangladesh is now in a position to be a partner of the EU through a win-win framework. It has proven its capacity to the world, and the country is no longer an aid-seeking nation. Bangladesh has the potential to contribute to the economy of the EU. Thus, Sheikh Hasina’s visit to Brussels needs to be utilized to strengthen Bangladesh-EU relations to a new height.

– Delwar Hossain is a Professor of International Relations at the University of Dhaka and founder chair (honorary) of the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs, Dhaka.

– Md. Shariful Islam is an Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Rajshahi. He is also an adjunct research fellow at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs, Dhaka.

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