The support Mr Aziz received whom he met during his three-day visit was as much a signal to the people of Pakistan as a gesture of encouragement to the Prime Minister himself. Mr Aziz saw his meetings with key EU officials, Belgiums Prime Minister and Nato secretary-general as part of a drive to reposition Pakistan in Europe. We repositioned Pakistan as a country which is enlightened, moderate, working very hard to improve the lot of its people and doing well, but not short of challenges, he told Dawns correspondent in Brussels. His discussions had focused on Pakistans role in the world of tomorrow as a major Islamic country, located at the crossroads of South Asia, China and the Middle East.
Europeans clearly could relate to the former executive vice-president of Citibank-turned-Prime Minister of a country which public opinion here has more often associated with the Taliban and Muslim fundamentalism than with moderation and enlightenment. Even so, Mr Aziz faces a difficult task in putting EU-Pakistan relations on a mutually profitable course.
This is clear from his efforts, and those of commerce minister, Humayun Akhtar Khan, to recover duty-free access to the EU market granted to Pakistan in 2002 under the special provisions of the EUs generalised system of preferences (GSP) scheme, aimed at helping countries combating drug trafficking. India successfully challenged these provisions as discriminatory in the WTO.
Duty-free access to the EU market will be available under the revised GSP scheme, currently awaiting approval by the 25 EU governments. The revised scheme provides for such access to developing countries that have ratified and effectively implemented 16 international core conventions on human and labour rights and seven international conventions dealing with good governance and environmental protection. Pakistan would have great difficulty in qualifying for duty-free access under the so-called GSP Plus features of the revised scheme as would most developing countries. Mr Aziz and commerce minister, therefore, tried to show that Pakistan should continue to enjoy duty-free access because of its key role in fighting international terrorism.
India would have little difficulty in challenging the grant of duty-free access to Pakistan, or to any other country, on these grounds in the WTO. EUs trade supremo, Peter Mandelson, is trying to help developing countries through changes to GSPs rules of origin.
Mr Aziz admitted that his country faced a long haul in its efforts to secure duty-free access to EU. The plain truth is that 30 years after it first introduced its GSP scheme, the EU remains reluctant to open its market to products, such as garments, for which developing countries, like India and Pakistan, are very competitive. Indeed, the EU wants countries like China, India and even Pakistan to offer GSP benefits to less advanced developing countries.
Mr Aziz was more successful in modifying the EUs perception of Pakistan, no mean achievement in itself. He recognises that how your country is perceived by others is very important in todays world, in which even presidents and prime ministers are marketed like washing powder. Hence his determination to rebrand Pakistan.
But India has far more to offer the EU than Pakistan, because it has far more in common with the EU. Imagine the political gains were Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and some of his colleagues to include Brussels on their foreign travels on a regular basis as Beijing does. It would immeasurably strengthen India-EU relations and strengthen multilateralism.