Meet the Ambassador | H.E. Charles Whiteley | European Union

19 July 2022
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Conversation between H.E. Charles Whiteley and Zillur Rahman Photo - CGS

On Saturday, 16th of July a program was hosted by the Centre for Governance Studies (CGS) in collaboration with Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) Bangladesh titled “Meet the Ambassador”. The event took place in a hotel in Dhaka and was the first of a series of “Meet the Ambassador” programs where ambassadors from various nations and international organizations were invited to talk to members of Bangladesh’s civil society representatives, journalists, diplomats, academicians, businessmen, and representatives from both ruling and opposition political parties. H. E. Charles Whiteley, the Ambassador of the European Union (EU) delegation to Bangladesh, was the guest of honor at the first event, where he gave a keynote speech and then answered various questions from the audience regarding relations between the EU and Bangladesh.

The discussion commenced with an opening speech from the Chairman of CGS and Chairman of the National River Conservation Commission, Dr. Manjur A. Chowdhury, followed by FES Bangladesh’s Programme Coordinator Shadhan Kumar Das. The conversation was moderated by the Executive Director of CGS, Zillur Rahman. 

Dr. Manjur A. Chowdhury, Chairman of CGS, presenting his opening remarks                                                             Photo - CGS
Manjur A Chowdhury welcomed everyone on behalf of CGS. He commented if the EU were to be a state it would be a super state and Bangladesh has so much to learn from them and is fortunate to have a vibrant relationship with the EU. In his opinion, we have common concerns on climate change, food security, trade, and good governance and we are working on them together. 

Shadhan Kumar Das welcomed everyone to the first event of ‘Meet the Ambassador’ series. He thanked everyone on behalf of Felix Kolbitz, Resident Representative of FES Bangladesh, who could not be there due to unavoidable circumstances. He emphasized the need for starting this conversation in the wake of the growing importance of changing geopolitics around the world. Bangladesh holds a very important role in the Indo-Pacific geopolitics. At the same time, Bangladesh and the EU have a long-tested relationship with the EU in the economy and trade and exploring a new horizon of bilateral relations. 

In his keynote speech, Charles Whiteley was grateful to be in the first event of the series. He gave a brief overview of the EU and its functions. He made the allegory that the EU is a sort of hybrid beast, sometimes a Ruthless wolf with a killer instinct and sometimes a gentle and reliable sheep which is a philanthropic organization, or a bit of both. According to him, the ruthless wolfishness comes from the fact that the EU is indeed operating to defend its own interests and puts stringent conditions on matters of trade and bilateral relations. The sheep aspect comes from the EU’s soft power initiatives in terms of being the largest provider of development assistance to developing nations. He elaborated on the various responsibilities of the central institutions of the EU for stitching all the 27 countries together. He commented on the rise of populist parties in European countries. He agreed that the EU has had a complicated journey with various crises and financial challenges including the Ukraine war. He talked about the security and military sphere, and new policies in that arena for the EU countries. 

Regarding relations with Bangladesh, he stated the EU’s interest in expanding its footprint in the Asia region through its own indo-pacific strategy, in which Bangladesh is a key partner.

During the conversation phase with the moderator Zillur Rahman, the ambassador stated that he hopes Bangladesh-EU relations will grow significantly in the next ten years. He noted that as Bangladesh is about to graduate from the Least Developed Country (LDC) category, there will be alterations to the current “Everything but Arms (EBA)” preferential trade agreement with the EU. Bangladesh will gradually shift to the EU’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP +) trade program, which gives developing countries a special incentive to pursue sustainable development and good governance. Eligible countries have to implement 27 international conventions on human rights, labour rights, the environment, and good governance. He commended the success story of Bangladesh in the RMG sector and the green factory, which in this opinion is a large selling point for the EU.  

According to the ambassador, the EU delegation is currently trying to develop political engagement with Bangladesh. The EU is also interested in partnering with Bangladesh in terms of security cooperation, maritime issues, energy, and climate change.

Regarding the trade and economy of Bangladesh, the ambassador stated that he is working to raise European investment in Bangladesh, which he says is still low compared to European investment in other Asian nations such as Vietnam. He also stated that the success of the RMG sector in Bangladesh must continue, and the green factories of Bangladesh are the real selling point for European markets. Aside from RMG, he says there is also potential for Bangladesh in its start-ups, IT sector, and niche markets such as bicycle manufacturing. 

When asked about the issue of Rohingya refugee repatriation, he stated that it needs to happen as soon as possible. Myanmar has not been held accountable for its genocidal actions. The EU has placed sanctions on Myanmar and suspended development assistance. The EU is also providing funds to Bangladesh for hosting the refugees. However, due to multiple ongoing crises around the world, the emergency fund is dwindling at the moment. He commented on how big players in this region could play a more important role in persuading Myanmar but are staying silent on this issue. 

Regarding geopolitics, the ambassador stated that the EU is hoping for a diplomatic solution to the war in Ukraine, and the current sanctions the EU has placed on Russia are in no way hampering the international food trade. In the answer to the widening of the NATO, he said there is now an enhanced awareness of the need to defend oneself among the nations of Europe; for this reason, even historically neutral nations are opting to join NATO.

EU also considers China a strategic partner in Asia. However, the EU will strictly oppose China if it hampers freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. And lastly, the EU considers Bangladesh pivotal in providing stability in the South Asia region.

The final third of the program was dedicated to the audience’s question and answer session. Some notable interactions were as follows:

In the early hours of Saturday, the EU Ambassador and Head of Delegation to Bangladesh, H.E Charles Whiteley, was asked about the EU’s current plan for providing independent observers to ensure impartiality in the next national elections. The ambassador replied that nothing had been decided yet.

Nasim Firdaus, former Ambassador and Advisor, CGS, asked if the EU has considered investing in creating a Bangladeshi multinational garments brand. She also asked the reason behind the EU dragging its switch on Ukrainian issues.

Charles Whiteley on this matter thought that businesses must grow organically. The EU cannot be in the driving seat in creating a Bangladeshi Brand, but it can help promote it if one ever comes into existence. In response to the second question, he said that their focus was on providing a quick and enormous amount of assistance to Ukraine to build up the Ukrainian economy and prepare them for EU membership.

Rabiul Islam Rabi, the Researcher and Economist, RAPID, asked about the sort of technical assistance could the EU offer Bangladesh in terms of providing or increasing technical education.

 H.E. Charles Whiteley with his keynote speech                                                                                         Photo - CGS
Charles Whiteley replied that they are focusing on funding technical and vocational education in Bangladesh for the next seven years.

Advocate Fahima Nasrin Munni, Assistant Secretary for International Affairs, BNP, asked the ambassador about the EU’s engagement on human rights violations, good governance, and the rule of law in Bangladesh. 

The ambassador replied that the EU joint commission has a broad platform for engagement with Bangladesh, including human rights issues. Regardless of whoever is in power, the EU will continue to fund projects in Bangladesh, such as those that empower women.

Parvez Karim Abbasi, Assistant Professor, Dept. of Economics, East West University, asked that within European Union member countries there is a rise of ethnic nationalism, where one of the worst key offenders is Hungary, and as democracy and rule of law have come under attack, how the EU would deal with it.

He agreed that there is no denying that Europe is grappling with these issues, and he thinks that there is a return of mainstream politics again in some countries, and mentioned that there is legal accountability in the EU which may not happen quickly. But if there is a breach in the treaty and there is the possibility of suspending membership but there are other options. The Rescue EU funds which will be allocated for post-Covid development, are conditional on the countries that have good rule of law and democratic process, so if seen unfit, those countries will not be getting the funds.  

Shama Obaid, Organizing Secretary, BNP, asked what factors might hamper trade between Bangladesh and the EU.

In reply, the ambassador pointed out red tapes and violation of labour rights as two big factors that might hamper trade.

Zahir Uddin Swapon, former MP, BNP, asked about the EU’s approach to protecting freedom of speech rights.  

The ambassador replied that the EU has strict rules against hate speech. He also said that it is very complex to legislate to protect people’s well-being while protecting rights. The EU is introducing elaborate legislation regarding internet and data protection, but it will take time to see how it turns out.

Nazma Akter, former MP, Bangladesh Awami League, asked about the EU’s strategy for stopping the Ukraine war. 

In reply, the ambassador pointed out that the EU has placed six rounds of sanctions on Russia and is providing large amounts of aid to the people of Ukraine.

Dr. Azam Khan, politician, Bangladesh Awami League, began his question by stating that he observed double standards some nations exhibit regarding human rights violations. He asked for clarification of the EU’s standards.

The ambassador stated that the EU tries to be consistent in its legislation. All trade agreements have consistent legal clauses regarding human rights. 

In response to a question about Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) with the cooperation of security agencies, asked by Niloy Ranjan Biswas, Associate Professor, University of Dhaka, the Ambassador’s response was that they have regular contact with the security agencies. EU, on its own, doesn’t have its own security agency but every country has its individual ones.  He also mentioned that the EU is working as a security actor.

Mahtab Uddin Chowdhury, Research Assistant from CGS, asked if there is any plan or strategies to make the visa processing more flexible for the students who are planning for Europe to obtain their higher education. The ambassador replied that the EU is providing the Erasmus-Mundus scholarship program in which 139 students got scholarships this year from Bangladesh. He said that they are trying to address the issue of visa processing with member states.

When the ambassador was asked about the strategies for protection of nature and climate havoc, he said the EU is trying to mitigate climate change and they are the largest provider of climate change finance.

Ahmed Reza, Jamuna Television, wanted to know the opinion of Whietely about the next election in Bangladesh. 

The ambassador expressed his desire not to have a running narrative on the upcoming elections as the matter is not in consideration at the moment in EU-Bangladesh bilateral talks. He also said that they meet as many people as possible to understand the situation as a friend and partners of Bangladesh 

M A Aziz, Senior Journalist, first of all, thanked the ambassador for emphasizing on vocational training and education. Then he asked if there is any plan of the EU to help the government of Bangladesh to corporate education related to automation and robotics.

In reply, the ambassador said that they are not engaged in these fields and they are engaged in artificial intelligence which is very interesting.

Another journalist, Mazhar Milon, Maasranga Television, wanted to know the view of the EU about development and what kind of development Bangladesh is running after.

In response, the ambassador focused on human development and quality of life besides financial development. He also expressed that Bangladesh is making steady improvements in all development indicators.

After the engaging Question and Answer round with the ambassador, the event ended with Zillur Rahman’s ending notes. His remarks included the appreciation for the EU for investing in Science and Education and in renewable energy worldwide. He further thanked the EU for being the largest faithful partner of Bangladesh. The ending note concluded with hopes and expectations about the EU-Bangladesh relation in the future.    


Iffat Binte Iftekar, Executive Policy Associate, Centre for Governance Studies

Dola Das, Research Intern, Centre for Governance Studies