"Under the dynamic and visionary leadership of Honourable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh is graduating from the category of Least Developed Countries in 2026

Photo Credit © European Union, 2023

State Minister for Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh, H.E. Md. Shahriar Alam, paid an official visit to Brussels on 1-5 May to participate in a series of high-level meetings marking 50 years of Bangladesh-EU Partnership. Among other high-level dignitaries, he met with the SecretaryGeneral of the European External Action Service (EEAS) Stefano Sannino; European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson; Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarcic; Commissioner for International Partnerships Jutta Urpilainen; Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis; Special Representative for Human Rights Eamon Gilmore; Vice President of the European Investment Bank Kris Peeters; Chair of the European Parliament's Committee on Foreign Affairs David McAllister and Chair of the European Parliament's Committee on International Trade Bernd Lange. On the last day of Honourable State Minister's mission in Brussels, he kindly sat down with Diplomatic World for an interview.

Your Excellency, can you outline the main outcomes of your visit? 

The European Union is our largest trading partner, half of our national trade is with the EU. Apart from economic dependency, the EU to us is a role model. We see the EU as a positive force in its engagement with the rest of the world, as the biggest development partner, an ardent advocate of democracy, environmental sustainability, human rights as well as a promoter of conflict resolution, peace and humanitarian values. 

Bangladesh is a relatively young nation, turning 52 this year. But the journey of true democratic Bangladesh is only 20 years. The first 30 years we were ruled by military dictators and this held the country back. Therefore, our cooperation with the EU is important to strengthen our democratic institutions, our constitutional organs, etc. 

The progress we have made thus far, we believe is properly acknowledged by the EU. We believe in an open book relationship: We consult, we speak and engage to them. Apart from bilateral issues, there are global issues where we have an independent foreign policy on the basis of "friendship to all, malice towards none". At the same time, we try to align with the EU, because we find their policies are largely neutral in the current world order, without any hidden agenda in terms of migration, climate change, and other areas. 

To mark the 50th anniversary of relations with the EU, I am in Brussels to revitalize and further the relationship. This is why I am meeting as many officials as possible (see list above). I would like take stock of the Bangladesh-EU relationship and what we should be doing in the future. We have agreed on the road ahead. Last November in Dhaka, we agreed with Deputy Secretary General of EEAS Enrique Mora to work towards a Partnership Cooperation Agreement (PCA), negotiations for which will start very soon. Both negotiating teams will try and conclude the agreement within a reasonable time frame. 

The European Union's Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme, which grants duty free and quotafree access to its 27-country market, except for arms and ammunition, is the one single tool that has been the greatest enabler of Bangladesh's economic development. It's part of the Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP) for Least Developed Countries (LDCs). 

As Bangladesh becomes increasingly prosperous, it needs to agree a new trading relationship with the European Union. In 2026, the country will graduate from the LDC category and thereafter, would receive the EBA preferential scheme for another three years till 2029, that has been generously offered by the EU to all graduating LDCs including Bangladesh. Thus, 2029 marks the start of the transition period for Bangladesh to qualify for the more ambitious GSP+ regime, which, as per the existing regulation, expects a country to sign 32 international conventions on labour and human rights, environmental and climate protection and good governance. 

In my meetings with four EU Commissioners including the Trade Commissioner and some high-ranking EU officials, I have been pressing the case for the EU's strong support to the LDC Group's proposal at the WTO for a six-year transition period after graduation. We are asking for a six-year post-graduation transition in WTO not just for Bangladesh though but for all the Least Developed Countries, that's very important. Because the dependency on that duty-free instrument is so large, that three years is too short of a time, especially considering the fact that in recent times the world economy has suffered two major blows: the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact of the conflict in Ukraine. We have lesser capacity to absorb these shocks, and need more time to cushion these impacts and have a smooth take off. This will allow us to have a better preparation at home. 

Apart from that, we are grateful to EU to maintain the momentum on climate change issues. We know that a few years ago, some countries exited from their commitments made in Paris. The world has suffered, and we in Bangladesh are one of the most climate vulnerable countries. Bangladesh does not emit, our contributions per capita in global carbon emissions is miniscule. But we are one of the worst sufferers. Our Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is leading many initiatives in this field, including chairing the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF), a 58-nation platform. We wish the EU to remain the torch-bearer of that campaign. We are confident the EU will keep extending support to us during the green transition.

The latest foreign policy vision of Bangladesh – the Indo-Pacific Outlook – was announced on 24 April. What are its main contours? Do you see synergies with the EU's Indo-Pacific Strategy? 

There are many commonalities between EU's Indo-Pacific Strategy and our own. But what we are mindful and careful about is that we must not compromise with our core foreign policy principle of "friendship to all, malice towards none". Conflicts and disputes never help. We have seen examples of that in the European neighbourhood, and in our part of the world too, such as in the South China Sea. 

We believe in the rules-based international order; we believe in free movement of people, goods and services; we believe in security. And whatever differences may occur between countries and regions, should be discussed and negotiated. Whenever they fail to reach a consensus, they should rely on UN rules, regulations and international law.

We have our own experience in this regard. India is one of our greatest friends, but even with India, when we had a difference of opinion on sea boundary delimitation, we went to the legal mechanism under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). We accepted the outcome. After the verdict, we recognised it as a win-win outcome for both parties. We believe in shared prosperity. Our challenges are a lot more fundamental than what you face in Europe, we still have the bottom 20 percent of our population living below the poverty line. And that is our commitment: to give everyone food, shelter, a life they want to live, education, financial assistance in the form of interest-free loans to those in need, such as small entrepreneurs in rural Bangladesh for example. Unless we achieve that, nothing else matters. This is reflected in our Indo-Pacific outlook, which comes down to the realisation of our Founding Father's dream to turn Bangladesh into a Golden Bangladesh. The reason he coined that idea over 50 years ago is that we always had the potential (fertile land, hard-working people, etc.) but we never got the opportunity to demonstrate that. If we can do it, we would turn into 'Sonar Bangla'.

In 2022, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina launched a programme called 'Smart Bangladesh', which will help turn Bangladesh into a high-income, poverty-free, developed nation, grounded in innovation, powered by technology (AI, IoT), and that will have a per capita GDP of USD 12,500. This is also reflected in our Indo-Pacific Outlook. 

To sump up, Bangladesh envisions a free, open, peaceful, secure and inclusive Indo-Pacific for shared prosperity for all. It's a new Bangladesh, a modern Bangladesh, a digital Bangladesh, a knowledge-based society with indomitable spirit and confidence, a triumphant country that continues to overcome challenges with firm determination and sustained efforts, a country that continues to earn a more respectable place at the global table 

Bangladesh is also very active in enhancing sub-regional connectivity in the Bay of Bengal region  

Yes, and Europe is an inspiration in this regard. The free movement of people and goods, common currency, that is something we aspire that. But it is very difficult, at the moment. It is the ultimate goal but in between, there are smaller, intermediate targets. Regional connectivity is one of them. We have three ports already: Chittagong, Mongla and Payra, giving us access to the Bay of Bengal, but we lack a deep sea port, which we are only now constructing with the help of Japanese investment. We transit our goods through Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore. We have allowed our neighbours to use these ports and transit their products, for both import and export, through our road and rail network, to Nepal, Bhutan and the Northeastern States of India. Nepal and Bhutan are using these facilities on a regular basis. 

The 1965 War between India and Pakistan cut all the historical trade routes and riverine routes. The commitment is to bring back the pre-1965 connectivity, based on today's demands and requirements. The World Bank and other International Financial Institutions (IFIs) are supporting some of the initiatives and I believe the newly launched Global Gateway Initiative can be another instrument. During my meetings in Brussels with Commissioners of different colleges, we said we will continue to discuss and have a deeper understanding on how the Global Gateway initiatives can be useful for Bangladesh also. 

Bangladesh carries a heavy burden hosting over one million Rohingyas from neighbouring Myanmar in its territory. What is your message to the international community?

There are two key dimensions to it: humanitarian (how we maintain them, feed them, and keep them reasonably healthy) and repatriation. But there is a third problem: the law and order situation in the camps, and the illicit activities of some of the Rohingyas. 

On humanitarian grounds, we want the EU to keep raising the issue and call upon the international community and other ASEAN countries, including Myanmar, to make sure there are contributions towards the Rohingyas we are sheltering. Bangladesh has a modest GDP per capita of just under USD 3,000 per capita, therefore hosting one million Rohingyas is not easy. Our call to the international community is to help the UN system, in charge of collecting and allocating assistance to Rohingyas. 

On repatriation, we need to put more pressure on Myanmar. We are engaged bilaterally and very soon we hope to start repatriation, but this is not solid or definite. It it always a hope and an aspiration. 

The law and order situation in side the camp is deteriorating by the minute, there is drug trafficking and gun running. Some of our law enforcement agency members have been brutally murdered by drug traffickers and gun runners in the camps. This only stresses the need for a quicker repatriation. 

We expect European Member States to do more. There have been sanctions issued against individuals and companies in Myanmar, but sanctions only will not help. We need effective measures, we need to be more innovative and put more pressure on the Government of Myanmar to ensure they act diligently. 

There is the risk that problems in the European neighbourhood will overshadow the Rohingya crisis, which has always been there, with ups and downs. We need to act decisively to eliminate the problem completely. In this regard, a deeper and greater engagement from EU Member States is absolutely essential. The EU, as a torch-bearer of human rights and democracy, should engage other countries in this regard.