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J.Sri Raman. July 24. 2010. EUROPEAN UNION versus SAARC




European Union vs SAARC

Blocs & Big Brothers’ Punches


by J. Sri Raman

J.Sri Raman




SAARC  Member  Nations


Pak-Lanka 'bhai bhai'European Union balloons

Pak-Lanka 'bhai-bhai' and EU balloons grounded...


Can 27 nation-states have a common foreign policy and a shared foreign service? The European Union is currently engaged in a serious exercise to evolve at least a partial policy of this kind and establish such a service. Work has begun, under a recently adopted EU "blueprint", to set up an independent 7,000-strong European External Action Service (EEAS), despite the bureaucratic hurdles raised by the existing diplomatic community.

Can eight nation-states contemplate a similar move? The idea would appear comically crazy to anyone watching the stationary progress over the years of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).

Can the regional bloc with the longer name board learn the correct lessons from the contrast? The negligible space granted to the EU event in our national media encourages no such expectations for now. 

How come the 17-year-old EU plans to enter this qualitatively new phase in a few months, while the SAARC will soon enter its 25th year with no higher a hope than of survival? It is not as if conditions were all advantageous for the EU and adverse for the SAARC.

It is not, for example, as though the foreign policies of the EU member-states were just waiting to be fused into one. The issues, on which their national foreign policies have proved nearly irreconcilable, range from the Iraq war and Kosovo's independence to a two-state Palestine solution and arms sales to China. The bloc has solved the problem, however, by basing its common foreign policy on issues that cut across borders - including terrorism, energy, climate change, and migration.

It is, obviously, not impossible to think of such issues in the SAARC's case. Terrorism, for instance, cries out for consideration as an issue of common South Asian stakes. The only concrete proposal on this to have emerged thus far was the Bangladeshi one for a regional anti-terror task force. The idea found a formal mention in some official statements after it was mooted in May 2009, but we have not heard of it since then. As for the India-Pakistan talk of joint anti-terror action, it is a trite joke by now.

Nor is it as though Europe - described by Jawaharlal Nehru as a "quarrelsome little continent" - was free from a heritage of inter-state suspicions derived from history. In fact, it still carries memories and scars of much older conflicts than those of colonial creation and aggravation in South Asia and other animosities of an even later origin.

What overcame the past in Europe was, first, recognition and then proof of the promised returns from regional economic cooperation. What has made the SAARC a non-starter for all practical purposes is the extremely negative attitude, especially on India's part, towards such cooperation and a stubborn refusal to see it as the primary step towards the consolidation of a regional force that is proof against political factors.

Ritual statements about core issues and cultural ties between the SAARC states have not really helped. Better results could have been achieved, and the bloc strengthened, if serious attempts had been made instead under its auspices to resolve bilateral issues of major economic implications.

The water issue between India and Pakistan could have been sorted out, for an important illustration, if political will and wisdom had not been found wanting.  All the rivers covered under the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960 flow from India to Pakistan, and a dam in India-administered Jammu and Kashmir can derail any peace process between the neighbours and rob the SAARC of its relevance.

A dam over the Barak river in India's North-East threatens similarly to damage relations with Bangladesh and, consequently, the bloc. No attempt has been made to solve an analogous riparian problem with Nepal. And dams are not the only subject of inner-SAARC disputes relating to development.

If the EU has had any advantage over the SAARC, it lies in the former's freedom from the deemed dominance of any single member. It is the US that Europe sees as the Big Brother, and the perception has benefited the bloc. The role has been reserved for India in South Asia. The lesson is clear and New Delhi will do well to learn it.  

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