Financial Times

GSP Plus: Was there another way?

By Dayan Jayatilleka

The controversy over the renewal or removal of the GSP Plus scheme is symptomatic of much that is wrong with our foreign policy and policy-making processes. The debate rages between the two extremes of rejection and compliance. What is ignored is that there was a third possibility which would have been far more in the national interest than either of these two knee-jerk responses.

Dayan Jayatilleka

However, the dominant reflexes reveal the dominant trends in our political classes, while the non-adoption of the more rational third position reveals the absence or paucity of reasoned reflection and argumentation in our political and policy discourse.

This is not being wise after the event; it is not an example of what the Americans call Monday morning quarterbacking. I had presented this intermediate or third option as a memo to policy makers at the highest level, during my diplomatic stint.

To recapitulate, the Opposition and civil society groups have been arguing for compliance with the EU’s human rights stipulations and norms, while Government spokespersons and pro-Government have taken a truculent, rejectionist stance especially as regards the famous investigation procedure.

My own interest in the matter was several-fold. I had been part of a three man team headed by the Minister of Human Rights which had discussions in Brussels with top officials including Commissioner Benita Ferrero Waldner. I had also been part of the team headed by Minister GL Pieris which had discussions on the matter with the EU/EC at a Geneva meeting.

Secondly I was concerned, as Permanent Representative to the UN at Geneva that any report from an EU Human Rights investigation would play out at the UN Human Rights Council.

Thirdly, I had an emotional interest in the matter because the garment industries took off in Sri Lanka under the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa with whom I worked from days after his inauguration to his murder on May 1, 1993 by the Tigers. (Interestingly, though I was in my early 30s and far less mature, and though he was known to be a perfectionist disciplinarian and hard taskmaster, I lasted the distance with President Premadasa).

I care about the livelihoods of those garment factory workers and the loss to their living standards and self esteem that unemployment would entail. I am also aware of the destabilizing social consequences of a significant spurt in factory closures and resultant job losses.

Resulting from this interest and concern, I held detailed discussions with states, which shall remain unnamed, which had had similar experiences with the EU, including on the GSP Plus mechanism.
These are states which are far from being Western puppets (if they were they would not have had the problem!). These were outspoken friends of Sri Lanka at the UNHRC, tough minded states, juggling their options while carving their own path in the post Cold War world. I distilled the advice given and sent it along. That advice was quite different from both the stand of the pro-West Opposition and Colombo’s civil society and that of the Government and its supportive ideologues. That advice was also far more consonant with our national and public interest, than the two positions currently taken by Government and Opposition.

This Third Option was neither of compliance nor rejection but engagement and cooperation with a view to gain time, so as to enhance the country’s position even marginally. This is what I would call the Realist position, so lacking in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy and policymaking in general.

The cold hard fact is that we need GSP Plus far more than the EU needs to give it to us. It is not our right or entitlement; it is what it is: a concession. This concession is conditional upon certain things because we sought eligibility upon certain claims and obtained the concession in the first place upon those claims and promises. The countries of the EU have to comply with their own legislatures and be mindful of public opinion. Frankly, if you are asking someone else for their money or preferential access to their markets, you cannot really demand it and get stroppy when it is not forthcoming.

The states which I consulted urged cooperation, not compliance. If we do not engage, they cautioned, the EU will conduct its investigation anyway, but it will be based entirely on INGO, NGO and other such sources, with no input from the Sri Lankan state. Our case will go by default. Cooperation is not so lacerating a process, similar as it is to Sri Lanka’s ongoing, albeit intermittent cooperation with UN special mechanisms, i.e. the visits of special rapporteurs.

Such a stance of constructive engagement would give us more time than a stance of non- cooperation. This time could be used for multiple and constructive purpose: to find alternative markets for our products or reorient our production structure; to seek out allies among the states and various business sector within the EU; to clean up our act domestically. In any case it would be better than the shock effect on our economy and especially the garment sector if it were to go into free fall with a sudden slashing of the GSP Plus. The subsidies we would and should use to keep the industry afloat and to provide a safety net for the garment workers, are monies we could have put into education and social infrastructure, if we adopted a more prudent policy on the GSP Plus issue.

The policy posture of engagement recommended to me by our friends and conveyed through me to GOSL seemed to me to be the epitome of hardheaded realism – far more so than a rhetorical saber-rattling about the Eastward shift of economic power, which makes no sense in this particular case since some of our best Asian friends are also our competitors in the export garment market.
I sent this to the most relevant quarters of all, but obviously, failed to convince.

(The writer was until last month, Sri Lanka’s Ambassador/Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva)

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