Prime minister returns from Europe, but has very little to show

- ANIL GIRI, Kathmandu

Jun 17, 2019-

After a week-long tour of three European countries, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli returned home on Sunday with very little to show.

Analysts and foreign policy watchers had expected that Oli’s visit to the United Kingdom and France, two countries that have long historical and diplomatic ties with Nepal, would result in agreements or at least firm commitments, but Oli returned empty-handed.

Two agreements with France--one regarding the establishment of a security printing press and the other about the launching of Nepal’s own satellite with French assistance--were believed to be on the cards but neither materialised.

In the UK, Gurkha veterans, who’ve long been protesting unequal pay and discriminatory treatment, had expected Oli to secure a deal with the British government as this issue has featured on the agenda of nearly every recent bilateral talks. But here too, Oli missed the mark, as a joint statement issued on Friday in London failed to even mention Oli raising the issue with British Prime Minister Theresa May.

Though the Foreign Ministry had announced that Oli was visiting the UK and France in official capacity, several formalities went unaccounted for, said a member of Oli’s delegation.

The Nepali delegation even made attempts to meet with the British Queen but was unable to get an appointment with her, said the delegation member. And there was no official ceremony or reception in London in honour of Oli.

Similarly, in France, there was no official reception in Paris for the Nepali delegation. After failing to hold serious engagements, a statement issued by the Nepali Embassy in Paris called Oli’s trip to France a “formal visit,” which is uncommon in diplomatic practice.

All visits by heads of state and government are either state or official, said Gopal Bahadur Thapa, former chief of protocol at the Foreign Ministry.

“Our prime minister’s visit to the UK and France could be termed as both state or official,” said Thapa. “Normally, a head of government on an official visit may or may not meet the head of state, depending on the pleasure of the host country.”

In Europe, many countries have started business-like ceremonies so they have stopped throwing state dinner or reception, clarified one government official who was part of the delegation.

“Our friends have stopped taking us seriously and this is the result,” said Madan Kumar Bhattarai, a former ambassador and foreign secretary. “What is the rationale behind meeting with the titular head of France who doesn’t even have the authority to hold a Cabinet meeting? Our Foreign Ministry has been downgraded and its role has curtailed significantly. Everything is happening on an experimental basis and depending on someone’s mood.”

Prime Minister Oli did not meet French President Emmanuel Macron and no joint statement was issued at the end of his visit. Generally, a bilateral visit by an executive head warrants a joint statement outlining whatever agreements or understandings were reached.

Despite a lack of significant meetings with high-level state officials, social media accounts belonging to members of the prime minister’s delegation were filled with constant updates on Oli’s informal engagements, including events hosted by the Nepali diaspora, junior officials or city mayors.

Speaking with reporters at the Tribhuvan International Airport upon his return to Kathmandu, Oli said that his Europe visit had been fruitful but failed to provide any details about his achievements. He, however, admitted that the issue of tripartite agreement of 1947 between Nepal, British and India on equal pay and facilities for Nepali Gurkhas in the British Army could not figure in Friday’s joint statement.

“The British side did not accept our proposal,” Oli said at the airport, while reiterating that he had spoken to British Prime Minister May about a review of the repatriate agreement. “Only those matters agreed upon by both sides figured in the joint statement. When one side doesn’t like an issue, it is natural for it to not figure in a joint communique,” he said.

The tripartite agreement states that the deployment of Gurkha soldiers should not be detrimental to the interest or dignity of the Nepal government and that both the British and Indian governments should let the Nepal government know about the recruitment and deployment of Gurkhas, which both governments have not followed.

“This is a new diplomatic mess for us,” said one sitting Nepali diplomat on condition of anonymity. “This agreement is very sensitive as India is also concerned. So the British turning down Nepal’s request is embarrassing.”

A number of foreign policy analysts said that Oli’s Europe trip exposed Nepal’s failure to prepare adequately before visiting countries as important to Nepal as the UK and France.

Nischal Nath Pandey, director of the Centre for South Asian Studies, said that even Oli must have realised the amount of homework it takes for the success of any high-level visit to another country.

“Although he shows interest in visiting foreign countries, Oli doesn’t seem to be getting support from our embassies abroad,” said Pandey. “Not being able to meet with the heads of state of both the UK and France are glaring examples of this failure.”

However, the prime minister’s press advisor defended the trip and said that many important issues had been raised.

“After 17 years, a Nepali prime minister visited London and pitched very clear agenda,” said Kundan Aryal, the press advisor. “He raised the issue of the blacklisting of Nepali airlines and other concerns. So the visit was successful.”

Foreign policy analysts, however, were unimpressed with Aryal’s assessment.

“The government is unable to clearly state the purpose of the visit because the prime minister failed to meet the two heads of state and there was no substantive outcome,” said Durgesh Man Singh, former Nepali ambassador to India. “It appears that the prime minister has failed to understand the gravity of a bilateral trip.”

In Switzerland, the third country that the prime minister visited, Oli toured the European Organisation for Nuclear Research and spoke at an event marking the centenary of the International Labour Organization. He was the only head of state present from Asia, among a handful of others from Europe and Africa.

Published: 17-06-2019 07:23

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