Business Times

GSP+: Change the negotiators

Once again – for the upteenth time –, the GSP+ issue has come to the fore with another ultimatum by the European Union (EU) and a counter-dismissal by Sri Lankan ministers. The EU says it will extend the concessions for another six months if the government gives an undertaking to implement a series of measures including withdrawing the Prevention of Terrorism Act, releasing political prisoners and re-activating the independent commissions.

Over the past 18 months or more, the government and the EU have been having a tit-for-tat battle, with claims and counter-claims and an unwillingness to compromise. But if one is to analyse the sequence of events, it is clearly the government that has faulted. In 2005, it agreed to implement several UN conventions which includes the convenance on civil and political rights but is yet to do so.

In a statement in end 2008, the EU said it was necessary to establish “whether the national legislation of Sri Lanka incorporating the International Covenance on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the Convention on the Rights of the Child has been effectively implemented.”

This is in line with the conditions clearly laid down to receive GSP+. These are concessions that the EU is doling out and not the right of any country to receive it. Either Sri Lanka should be ready to abide by the rules or not apply for it. This is unlike the relationship with the IMF in which countries are entitled to certain facilities and where Sri Lanka is subscription-paying member country.

This point was illustrated succinctly by Dayan Jayatillake, former ambassador for Sri Lanka at the UN in Geneva. In a September 13, 2009 article in the Sunday Times, he said: “The cold hard fact is that we need GSP + 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.”

So in the first place Sri Lanka has clearly failed to follow the rules. Then when the EU says it is launching an investigation into Sri Lanka’s ‘promises’, the government acts tough and refuses to allow any investigation on our shores. The EU probe team conducts its probe overseas where several Sri Lankan human rights groups and trade unions make submissions. No submission or the ‘government’ side of the story is forthcoming to the probe team which refers to this in its report where it recommends that the government’s application for a second round of concessions should be rejected. In February 2010 the EU says the application has been rejected but gives time till July for Sri Lanka to show some improvements in the ‘human rights’ situation. Two rounds of discussions between a government team with EU officials in Brussels and also other visits by Minister G. L. Peiris when he handled international trade hasn’t worked, although government propaganda indicated that everything was hunky dory.
Most political analysts and trade unionists agree that the latest ultimatum by the EU is unfair and doesn’t reflect on the need to implement the UN conventions on political and civil rights. The new demands are more specific and, one could argue, are not in line with the UN conventions.

However is a stubborn, angry and knee-jerk response from the government necessary particularly when it is their (EU) right to give the concessions and not our (Sri Lanka’s) right to receive it, as pointed out by Dr Jayatillake? Shouldn’t we have made a more measured and tactful response instead of a ‘don’t bully us’ type of reaction?

On the other hand the latest ‘missile’ from the EU could also be interpreted as Sri Lanka getting another opportunity to receive the concessions. For example, there is no reason for the EU to make a 6-month extension offer when it could have easily allowed the August 15 deadline to come into force and end the concessions.

The EU is not angry with Sri Lanka. Otherwise why extend its grant (free money) package of Rs 8.4 billion for two more years from 2011-2013?

Thus instead of being stubborn and arrogant, the government must continue the dialogue. Maybe the messenger cum negotiator needs to be changed. Bring in the industrialists and the unions to bargain with EU authorities; They’ll do a much better job. No one can say these groups are unpatriotic and that they would not negotiate in the national interest.

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