Q&A: The European Union’s head of South Asia external affairs, Maria Castillo, spoke with  Kuensel’s Thinley Zangmo, during her visit to the country

What is the purpose of your visit?

This is my third visit to the country. I have been dealing with Bhutan since 2012. This time I’m going a bit out of Thimphu to other dzongkhags to see the countryside, stop and see the gewogs, farms, and see how all the assistance that we have been providing and working together with the government, in order to help the people of Bhutan to continue prospering and developing.

It’s good to see the real things when you stop and speak with farmers and communities.

We put in our aid in local governance and decentralisation, and also on rural renewable natural development. It’s all new programmes under the 11th Plan. Our idea is then to go and see the reality.

The main purpose of my visit is to come here to see how things have evolved and all the different issues that we have discussed are in progress.

We are working in various fields. We see Bhutan as an example that has moved on successfully in the democratic process. I am certainly very happy to see that Bhutan is one of the most peaceful countries in the South Asian region.

The area we are focusing on right now is rural development, natural resources, renewable development, for which we are working closely with government agencies such as the agriculture ministry, Gross National Happiness Commission, to try to help that sector to develop, which is a key in the economy and also to make rural livelihoods more prosperous, and more diverse economically. Bhutanese people are now trying to commercialise their products, trying to find bigger production and bigger markets. We are open in these areas as well.

The other important area we are also focusing on is climate change, which is very important to Bhutan. We signed a declaration on climate change with the Prime Minister and agriculture minister Yeshey Dorji during the COP21 in Paris last year. We are now open to implement the declaration and increasing cooperation on climate. For example, we are working together in projects like green procurement and sustainable rural livelihoods, among others. Bhutan is one of the countries, which in terms of climate change is an example for the region.

What further areas of collaboration between the EU and Bhutan are being explored?

I met with the Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay and foreign minister Damcho Dorji yesterday. I told them during a discussion that trade is one area where we need to work more closely together since it’s very important to Bhutan and because Bhutan is moving on the development stage and is going to graduate from the low income country category soon.

We are open to trade, more diversification, and more possibilities for good products that Bhutan has. I personally bought a lot of local products since I like them and because they are unique and it’s important to commercialise and bring them to the market. To import to the EU, there is a lot of certifications, criteria and standards, which is difficult. We are going to work together with different associations such as BCCI and others to manage and extend our trade cooperation.

There are lot of things to do on climate change like I mentioned. The third one is exchange of students because there are increased possibilities for Bhutanese students and academics to come and study in Europe. That will increase people to people contact and knowledge on what is Bhutan in Europe and what is Europe in Bhutan. That is something we need to expand because there is a potential.

We are moving on in our relations. In these four years, I have tried to put Bhutan in the agenda of the EU. Most important is if we can manage to sign the European Investment Bank Agreement, which is still pending and it will be discussed in parliament next week. We certainly hope that it could convince the parliamentarians that this is a simple financial tool that will allow Bhutan to work in another stage of development where Bhutan needs lot of investment support. Therefore, this is the tool the EU passed to provide investment support to many countries including neighbouring  countries like Bangladesh, India, Nepal, China and Vietnam, among others. So I hope Bhutan can benefit from all these important support in key issues such as infrastructure, climate change, big hydropower projects and so on. I’m looking forward to it.

Any update on the funds committed?

Yes, the money will be released before the summer. It follows a normal cycle. We have a decision coming next week in Brussels for the local governance project, rural renewable natural development project and climate change, which will be around 40M Euros. That will be discussed sometime at the end of August. The funds will be dispersed after that. Then we have the civil society programme that will come later in the year. We are extending projects like trade, which will come next year. At the end, we have a bilateral envelope of 42M Euros. More funds will be added because we have been pushing for climate change, trade, and small investment projects such as sustainable tourism, which will come to around 65M Euros. The aid will now come to Bhutan in terms of overall envelope in different programmes. We have to work together. Disaster preparedness in one area, which we would like to work together in the future. We have to see how that can match the expectations from both sides.