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Lessons for SAARC from the European Union
Claude Arpi
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April 04, 2007
A friend working for the European Commission recently showed me an amusing picture taken during a meeting in Brussels. In the early hours of the morning after an intense night of parleys, two of the negotiators were sleeping on the carpet, while their colleagues were dozing on a nearby table. These late night marathon discussions are quite well known amongst European bureaucrats.

This made me dream: Could we see one day a similar picture with joint secretaries of South Asian nations totally exhausted after attempting to sort out the latest hurdles towards a closer integration of the SAARC?

Unfortunately my dream was short lived, as I came across a telling PIB communique: '2,478 kms of fencing on Indo-Bangladesh border has been completed so far. The state-wise figures of fencing are (West Bengal, 1,177 kms; Assam, 190 kms; Meghalaya, 371 kms; Mizoram, 85 kms; and Tripura, 655 kms).' This was the minister of state for home's answer in the Lok Sabha to a written question.

We are living in a different reality and it is probably too early to envisage that SAARC leaders and bureaucrats (who met in Delhi this week for the 14th time in 22 years) will emulate their European counterparts.

For India, South Asia and Europe, 2007 is nevertheless a year of celebrations. In August, India will commemorate the 60th anniversary of her Independence from the British. On March 25, Europe observed with fanfare the 50 years of the Treaty of Rome, while India has forgotten that 60 years ago, the first Asian Relations Conference was organised by the Indian Council of World Affairs in Delhi.

1947 saw a new birth for India and probably because the soul of the Indian nation had suffered so much during two centuries of colonisation, first Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru thought that India should take the lead to bring Asia together. Thus was born the concept of a pan-Asian Conference. In 1946 already, Nehru had written to Gandhi: 'That is going to be a unique event in history.'

It is ten years later that six European states (France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxembourg) decided to focus their energies on integration and union. Europe was born on March 25, 1957, when the Treaty of Rome was signed in the Italian capital. The main object of the Treaty was to set up a customs union and a common market between the member states.

It is worth comparing these two attempts at greater cooperation between neighbouring States. The situation in each continent was similar for one thing: both had suffered a great deal, Asia under the colonial powers and Europe for five years of a ghastly war.

At the end of World War II, Europe was going through one of the most traumatic periods of its history; paradoxically this helped create the 'circumstances' under which a successful partnership could take shape. The urge for closer cooperation often arises from the difficult times a nation or a continent has to go through. Unfortunately, the comparison stops here.

For India and Asia, the Asian Relations Conference was a continuation of their freedom struggle. An official document states that one of the purposes of the event was: 'How to terminate foreign dominion, direct or indirect, and to achieve freedom to direct their affairs in accordance with the will of the people concerned.'

The motives of those who built Europe were different. Jean Monnet, the father of Europe, and his German colleagues believed that to avoid a new conflict, the surest way was to come together on the very thing which had previously divided the nations.

As both Germany and France had to rebuild their industries; the proposal was to create a supranational higher authority which could manage the resources in coal and steel for both nations. This was the birth of the European Coal and Steel Community. A treaty was signed in Paris in 1951 establishing the embryo of the European Community.

A close partnership between the enemies of yesterday was set in motion. Though (or because) no 'ideology' was involved, Germany and France were able to collaborate and work together.

But let us come to back to the Asian Relations Conference.

The plenary session of the Conference was held in Purana Qila on March 23, 1947. The leaders of each of the 32 delegations were sitting on the dais behind a plate with their name and their flag. Even Tibet, then independent, had its own flag with the snow-covered mountains and the two snow lions representing the dual powers of the Dalai Lama.

The proceedings lasted till April 2 when Gandhi delivered the valedictory address: 'If you want to give a message again to the West, it must be a message of Love; it must be a message of Truth.'

Here lies the difference of approach between the two continents. While the Europeans were not bothered about philosophy and ideas, but coal and steel only, the Indian leaders thought that they could build the future of Asia on 'love and truth' only. Unfortunately hardly five months after this first attempt at uniting Asia, the sub-continent was itself partitioned and by the end of 1947, the circulation of people and ideas between South Asian nations and particularly India and Pakistan had stopped. During the same period, the former enemies in Europe had no problem to travel from one country to another.

Today the tragedy of the Partition is still ever-present in the sub-continent. Gandhi's words at the Asian Relations Conference seem far away today, though the SAARC, also based on ideals and principles and not on concrete needs, is a timid attempt at regional cooperation.

Monnet had prophesied the European Union would be built 'through concrete realisations, creating at first a de facto solidarity. it is essential to develop habits of cooperation among nations which had so far only known relationships based on power.'

These habits do not exist in South Asia.

Another big difference: The European experiment had the full support of its allies, particularly the United States. This is a crucial point as the sub-continent never had this good fortune. At the time of the creation of the common market, the US patronage certainly made the difference for Europe. In the case of South Asia, the role of the Western powers has been more ambivalent to say the least. It is therefore a welcome development that the US and EU were observers at the SAARC summit.

At a seminar recently organised in Delhi, I heard a participant saying that Europe was not 'sexy' anymore; it might be true, but the fact remains that the united approach of 27 nations in certain fields such as the environment makes the European experiment worthwhile. Whether it is due to wisdom or necessity, the spirit of 'sharing' common responsibilities initiated by the founding fathers 50 years ago when six European nations agreed to have a common market, is still alive.

In February, at a conference of SAARC editors, Imran Aslam, the president of Pakistan's GEO TV channel, told the participants: 'SAARC has disappeared. The entire region has disappeared.' He gave a true but depressing picture of the coverage of the region in Indian and Pakistan's media.

Even Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon admitted that though SAARC has been in existence for 20 years, 'it is a rather sad commentary that this is the first time that we have a meeting of editors at this level in SAARC. There is a general air of pessimism.'

Unfortunately this gloomy picture is not restricted to the media; it extends to almost all the fields of regional cooperation. In less diplomatic terms, SAARC has today become irrelevant.

One of the many problems is that SAARC was built on lofty principles (Panchsheel type), but not on the concrete needs of the people of the region (contrary to the European construction).

Another issue is the consensus approach. SAARC should perhaps emulate Europe and set up a multiple speed mechanisms for certain subjects; for example the Euro Zone counts only 13 members out 27 European nations; so is the Schengen Zone for free circulation of people. The fact that the SAFTA (the South Asian Free Trade Zone) is a non-starter remind us that a less inclusive approach should be chosen and those are not ready to join should remain outside the Free Trade Zone. It is too easy today to block any progress by taking refuge behind so-called 'contentious' issues (read Kashmir).

Another positive feature of the European integration is the active presidency of one of the 27 nations for six months during which the presidency presides at least at two summit meetings and works hard to leave his 'national' mark in the integration.

It is certain that if South Asian leaders are serious to advance towards a closer South Asian cooperation, if not integration, more meetings will be required. Will the image of late night marathon discussions start giving ideas to the South Asian negotiators in the years to come?

And, of course, South Asian bureaucrats should not emulate their Brussels' counterparts; it is said that the EU bureaucracy is even more dreadful than the Indian one.

But the main issue facing the sub-continent is that unless the 'original sin' of Partition is, in one way or another, made irrelevant, the SAARC or a new limited avatar will not go very far. The journey towards South Asian integration will be long and arduous, but it has to start one day!

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