EP elections & Pakistan

Jean-Claude JunckerBy Qudsia Farhat

European Parliament (EP) elections were held in the European Union (EU) from 22 to 25 May 2014. These were the 8th EP elections since the first direct elections in 1979, and the first in which the pan-European parties fielded candidates for President of the Commission. The leading candidates in EP-2014 were Jean-Claude Juncker for the European People’s Party; Martin Schulz for the Party of European Socialists; Guy Verhofstadt for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party; Ska Keller and José Bové jointly for the European Green Party and Alexis Tsipras for the Party of the European Left. The Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists and the European Alliance for Freedom did not nominate candidates.

According to latest reports, EU leaders in Brussels have nominated former Luxembourg PM Jean-Claude Juncker to be the President of the European Commission, much to the chagrin of the British Prime Minister David Cameron, who called the result “a serious mistake”. David Cameron and his Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orban were the only ones to vote against him. It is quite likely now that Mr. Juncker will win the vote by Euro MPs.

The European People’s Party had apparently lost ground to the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats but the victory by Juncker provides him with the most powerful job in Brussels since the Commission drafts EU laws, oversees national budgets, enforces EU treaties and negotiates international trade deals. David Cameron’s fears are that Juncker is too much in favour of closer political union and might block EU reform.

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The May 2014 EP elections of May 2014 elected the new Parliament comprising 751 members. A total of 365 million voters in 28 EU member countries were eligible to vote while the turnout remained 43.09%. These were important elections in EU’s history being the first under the Lisbon Treaty – 2009, which empowered the Parliament to govern both EU and Euro Zone (EZ) at par with European Commission (EC).  For the first time the new Parliament was empowered to elect the new EC President. The EZ crisis has brought the EU economy to central stage in these polls. The issue of ‘un-employment’ remained the yardstick to measure the effectiveness and sincerity or otherwise of the main contenders.

The elections were won by nationalist/Euroskeptic parties from France and Britain. However, anti-establishment parties (far right and hard left) almost doubled their representation. Resultantly, centre-right and centre-left will continue to control more than half of 751 seats in EU legislature.

The Ukrainian Crisis has exposed deep divisions in the EU over security and foreign policy. A real discussion about Europe’s security and foreign policy has yet to begin. The outgoing European Parliament did some excellent analyses on the weaknesses of European foreign policy. But it relies on the member states to make that essential difference when it comes to giving the EU a serious foreign, security, and defense dimension.

The EP elections are likely to adversely impact Pakistan’s interests in the EU, especially the GSP (generalized scheme of preferences) Plus Scheme.  Pakistan is expected to face tough questions on various issues including, human rights, minority rights and journalists’ safety among others. It is likely that anti EU populists, leftists and protectionist group may try to suspend Pakistan’s GSP+ status. Southern Europe countries namely Italy, France, Greece, Portugal and Spain will be more critical towards this status due to their textile sector pressure. Their main grouse is that the women workers in Pakistan’s textile industry were maltreated and that the influx of the Pakistani textile sector in EU post-GSP+ would hurt the local industry. New wave of malicious propaganda may be launched against Pakistan on HRs, minorities’, Blasphemy Law, missing persons, women empowerment and child labour laws. Situations in Balochistan / FATA will also get more attention in new Parliament. Strategic dialogue with EU will also be seriously tested as linkage will be drawn with situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s relations with India.

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Rough days are ahead and Pakistan should adopt a proactive approach and project the positive developments and achievements of Pakistan. It should reiterate that Pakistan’s textile sector is not a threat to the Italian textile sector. Pakistan is nowhere near the safeguard thresholds that the EU has put in place in the GSP regulation. The number of female workers in Pakistan’s textile industry has gradually increased and if they were facing the alleged harassment, there should have been a decline in their numbers.

The new MEPs (Members of European Parliament) should be engaged to address the misconceptions and win their support. In this regard modalities must be worked out.

Pakistani Diaspora in Europe can play an important role in addressing the misconceptions.  Three British Pakistani politicians, Afzal Khan of the Labour Party, Sajjad Karim of the Conservative Party and Amjad Bashir of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), who have been elected as members of the European Parliament during elections should be a welcome sign. Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis and Missions abroad must prepare comprehensive strategies including people to people contact by Pakistanis residing in European countries; capacity building of Pakistani nationals serving in European institutions and research organizations to defend own point of view; while own missions/overseas Pakistanis must engage unaffiliated MEPs, who are likely to serve as strong pressure groups.

There is dire need for enhanced interaction with foreign media through fully funded visits of influential media persons to Pakistan and establishing linkages between think-tanks in EU and the corresponding institutes in Pakistan. Social media should be utilized to promote the positive steps adopted by Pakistan to increase harmony with the minorities. Simultaneously, domestic media should be briefed regarding countering malicious propaganda campaigns launched against Pakistan. Researchers and students in foreign universities must be motivated to present good personal conduct, correct misperceptions about Pakistan and counter anti Pakistan propaganda contents through interactive academic encounters in European universities/countries.

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EU is a powerful body and Pakistan must put its best step forward to enjoy better relations with it and safeguard its own interests.