Nepal and the European Union (EU) will be celebrating 50 years of diplomatic relations next year. And in that time, how has the relationship evolved and how does the Union currently view Nepal? The Gorkhapatra Corporation’s Aashish Mishra and Chandni Hamal put these questions, along with queries on the Union’s assistance, the EU air safety list and support to Nepal’s transitional justice, to the newly appointed Ambassador of the European Union to Nepal Veronique Lorenzo last week. Excerpts
Could you please shed light on the priorities and activities of the Delegation of the European Union in Nepal?
I think perhaps it's useful to give a bit of background and explain where we came from because we are coming up on 50 years of relations between the European Union and Nepal. And relations have evolved since half a century ago.
Our diplomatic relations began in 1974, which was before the Maastricht Treaty, before we became the European Union. Our relations then were mainly focused on development. After we became the European Union, the dimensions of our relationship widened while development cooperation continues to be an important pillar of our ties with Nepal.
Our current development cooperation portfolio, or partnership as we call it, has three priorities, and these are aligned with Nepal's own priorities and national development plan.
The first one is green recovery. This is around renewable energy. It is about filling the gap in the grid for communities inside Nepal. We have investments in transmission lines and hydropower to fill this internal gap, but also to help Nepal take advantage of its potential to export electricity to the region. Being the European Union, of course, anything to do with regional integration is of interest to us and we intend to support it.
The second pillar is around human capital, which essentially means education. We have been investing in education for over 30 years now with good achievements in terms of access. If you look at the figures especially of girls’ access to education 30 years ago, I think the number was 12 per cent. But now, this has changed substantively, and we almost have parity and high access to primary education. A lot of work remains to be done, particularly on the quality of education, and so we continue to support Nepal in the education sector.
The third priority is around governance. Our objective is to support Nepal to implement its Constitution and its federalism. So, this is what we focus on in our development programmes. And human rights are part and parcel of all these activities.
We also have two enabling drivers, if you wish. One of them is gender, which is not only a major component of all our interventions. We have also a standalone programme that focuses on the various factors required to ensure gender equality such as the elimination of gender-based violence, promotion of gender empowerment, allowing women to have income generation opportunities that give them financial independence and having women in leadership positions.
The other enabling driver is the agenda of federalism. All our interventions are designed to support the local governments.
Let me also tell you that our current development programme spans from 2021 to 2027. It is endowed with €209 million for the period 2021 to 2024. And we have a mid-term review now coming up in 2024. The performance of these programmes is good. We have reconfirmed that these are the priorities of the Nepal government, and we expect this programme to continue for the second phase from 2024 to 2027.
In trade and investment, our focus is also on the graduation of Nepal from the group of least developed countries (LDCs). When Nepal becomes a middle-income country, it will lose access to the present Everything But Arms regime, which waives all quotas and tariffs for Nepalese exports to the EU. But Nepal can access another regime called the Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+) which also has several benefits in terms of no barriers to Nepali goods and services. And to be able to access that, there are a number of conditions that need to be fulfilled with respect to human rights, and labour and environmental standards. And how will we measure that? We measure that by Nepal's ratification of a number of conventions.
At the moment, there are three conventions Nepal needs to ratify – two International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions on freedom of association and protection of the right to organise, and on labour inspection, and the Cartagena Protocol on biological safety and biodiversity. We also need to ensure the effective implementation of the core UN and ILO Conventions that Nepal is party to.
We have pledged to support Nepal's transition to our EU preferential system. But there's still some homework to be done from the Nepali side.
Our cooperation in multilateral fora also ties in with our bilateral cooperation. For example, on issues like climate change. Furthermore, in the multilateral arena, Nepal and the EU both support the principles of the UN Charter, especially respect for territorial integrity and national sovereignty. It really is helpful for the EU to have such a close partner in multilateral fora.
And how has the EU been supporting Nepal’s transitional justice process?
It is a topic that we have followed closely over the years. As you know, the European Union contributed to the peace process through the Nepal Peace Trust Fund. And transitional justice is, in a way, the last piece of the puzzle that needs to be put in place to conclude this impressive peace process. I think that the United Nations Secretary-General put it very well when he said that the transitional justice process will be successful if it is inclusive, comprehensive, victim-centric and abides by international standards. We fully support that position.
We are keen to see the transitional justice Bill go into enforcement as soon as possible. But we fully understand that this is a delicate process. We know that it is very complex. It has to be Nepali-owned. As the international community, we stand ready to support the implementation.
Given the many unfolding crises around the world, like the Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Hamas conflicts, will the EU focus its attention away from Nepal and the region?
There are two parts to this answer. The first one is that, it is clear that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is getting a lot of attention from the European Union. But the second part of the answer is that the European Union is fully aware that in such a difficult situation, what we need are more allies, not less. We cannot afford to isolate ourselves. So, there is an extra effort to reach out to like-minded countries to work together. Because these crises are linked; the Russian invasion of Ukraine has impacted not only Ukraine, not only Europe, but the entire world, with higher food prices, higher energy prices and higher inflation. This has affected Nepal as well. So, in such difficult circumstances, we need to strengthen our relations with our friends and Nepal certainly counts as a close friend.
When does the EU think it can open its skies to Nepali airlines?
As you know, Nepal has been on the air safety list for 10 years now. We have, over the years, provided support to the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) to improve some aspects of its safety and oversight of air operations. A European assessment mission that took place from September 11 to 15 reviewed the Civil Aviation Authority and some air carriers. They produced a report that is now with CAAN and has also been sent to the EU Air Safety Committee.
That committee will next meet from November 15 to 17. They will review the report and decide whether the conditions are in place for Nepal to be removed from the air safety list. They make the decision. But I think we should know where we stand by the end of November or the beginning of December.
We need to focus on the issue at stake, which is the safety of all our customers, Europeans and Nepalis. Safety is non-negotiable.
The EU is often accused of supporting proselytism in Nepal. Does the EU support missionary activities?
I have to say that it really shocked me to hear such an accusation when I first arrived here, and I attribute it to fake news and disinformation. I had never heard about this controversy until I arrived in Nepal. I have worked in Latin America; I have worked in Africa and nowhere has this issue come up.
The European Union is secular. All our legislation and all our governments are firmly secular. In this context, the EU promotes Freedom of Religion or Belief worldwide, which means that all human beings should be free to practice their chosen religion and they also have the right not to have any religion at all.
The majority of the countries in the European Union have a culture rooted in Christianity. But we also have sizable religious minorities. We have a sizable Muslim population. We have Buddhists. We have Hindus, of course. For a society to be able to coexist peacefully, as Nepal does, you need to have a secular umbrella. The only thing we advocate is secularism and freedom of religion or belief. But never, and I am adamant about this, NEVER has any of our Member States been engaged in proselytising.
You have been in Nepal for slightly over a month now Madam Ambassador. And you have had a chance to visit the Madhes Province. How has been your experience?
I am looking forward to travelling more. You hear of Nepal as a country of hills and mountains and the first place I went to wasthe plains. But these are plains with great potential in agriculture but great challenges as well, in terms of desertification. So, one thing we looked at was some of our projects in water conservation. And I learned how essential it is to conserve the Chure range. Then in Janakpur, we met with the local government.
I saw how proactive the Chief Minister of the province and the mayor of Janakpur are. They have ideas and they want to do things. But they have limited resources. That is something we need to work on; to enable the local governments to function without hindrances. Because they have ideas and plans, but they also need to have the means.