Burma’s President Thein Sein received a warm welcome during his first visit to the European Union offices on Tuesday, along with pledges of support for his government’s ongoing political and economic reforms. However, EU leaders also urged him to reach a peace agreement with ethnic rebels soon.
Thein Sein, who is on a tour of Europe that is taking him to five countries, met with EU President Herman Van Rompuy, European Commission President Manual Barroso and the commission’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in Brussels, Belgium on Tuesday.
“[R]est assured that you have in the European Union a committed and long term partner for the historic journey that Myanmar and its people have started,” Van Rompuy told Thein Sein, according to EU press statements.
Van Rompuy welcomed the pace of Burma’s ongoing political reforms, adding that he “encouraged the government to continue to make progress to ensure free and fair elections in 2015.”
He urged Thein Sein’s government to address the county’s most important remaining challenge, “the need for a comprehensive peace settlement in ethnic areas to move forward in the process of national reconciliation.”
Barroso, head of the European Commission, which is the EU’s executive body, also praised Burma’s reform process, but noted, “Despite the impressive change that is underway the reforms and the transition are not completed.”
“Significant challenges lie in the way, such as the general improvement of fundamental freedoms, especially minority rights; addressing the humanitarian situation in the Kachin and [Arakan] States,” said Barroso, who had visited Burma in November.
He said that the EU would support Burma’s peace process and its electoral commission ahead of the 2015 national elections, adding that EU development aid to Burma would be doubled and include a US$195 million package to support democratic reform.
Perhaps most importantly for Burma, the European Commission has proposed to reinstate the Generalized Scheme of Preferences (GSP), said Barroso, adding that an EU-Burma bilateral investment agreement was also being explored.
If the EU grants Burma GPS status it could join the EU’s Everything but Arms initiative, under which products from least developed countries can be imported into the EU duty and quota free. Burma has been banned from the scheme because of its poor democratic and rights record.
The EU suspended international trade sanctions against Burma in April 2012 in response to political reforms under Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government, which took over power from the military junta in 2011. The US also suspended some its trade sanctions against Burma last year.
Burma’s president called on the EU to go further and permanently lift all economic sanctions, according to news agency AFP.
“It is still a great hindrance that sanctions exist,” Thein Sein was quoted as saying. He also said through an interpreter that his government had been able “to reduce a culture of fear” in Burma. Thein Sein promised that his government would keep Burma on the democratic reform path.
Ahead of Tuesday’s meeting, Human Rights Watch had urged the EU to keep pressure on Burma’s government, so that it implements comprehensive reforms in the field of human rights.
“EU leaders should treat the reform efforts to date in Burma as just the start of a process, not the end,” said Lotte Leicht, HRW EU director.
HRW said it was imperative that the EU and the US demand that Burma allows the opening of permanent UN human rights office in the county—as Thein Sein has promised President Obama.
“Burma’s president should be urged to honor his pledges to permit an office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights with a full rights protection, promotion, and technical assistance mandate, and allow full and unimpeded access of humanitarian organizations to areas where civilians are in need,” the New York-based group said.