That even Cabinet Ministers were taken by surprise by this newspaper’s front page lead story last week was not the best example of transparency and good governance — supposedly the trademark of this Government. The story; that the European Union (EU) and Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs have agreed on 58 conditions for Sri [...]


Europe’s economic neo-colonialism


That even Cabinet Ministers were taken by surprise by this newspaper’s front page lead story last week was not the best example of transparency and good governance — supposedly the trademark of this Government.

The story; that the European Union (EU) and Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs have agreed on 58 conditions for Sri Lanka to win back GSP plus facilities (a Generalized System of Preferences on tariffs) into European markets was strenuously denied by some junior ministers eager to score brownie points with their leaders, but the Foreign Minister himself was more cautious at the Cabinet meeting as our Political Editor says on this page. Sometimes junior ministers tend to rush in where angels fear to tread.

The Foreign Minister told the Cabinet that the number of conditions agreed to, was 21, not 58. A former Foreign Minister said he agreed to much less. Our story, based on documents that we have in our possession gives the number as 58, but the crux of the matter is not the scorecard, but the principle involved. Put bluntly, if this is not ‘neocolonialism’, what is? And if this is not weak-kneed, spineless negotiating skills from the Sri Lankan end, what is.

Europe was an early proponent of free trade. Today, European nations are attaching conditions even to trade using their financial muscle built over the centuries by the exploitation of their former colonies. One need not go down that dirty road, but trade is not aid that must have strings attached to it. When the EU envoy in Colombo says this week that the regional grouping is donating 4.5 million Euros (Rs. 779 million) for building stronger communities and a vibrant civil society, and that human rights is the ‘silver thread’ of EU foreign policy, he is entitled to say that. But GSP plus is trade even though it is a concession granted, it is trade – not aid. If economically developing countries are being encouraged to be self-reliant, sanctions in any form, the West’s latest ‘weapon of war’ cannot be used selectively to bring countries in line with their foreign policy.

So far, the country has not been informed what even those 21 conditions are. The 58 relate to the Rule of Law and the justice system, Governance and the fight against corruption, Reconciliation and sharing power in the North and East, Human Rights, Migration, Cooperation with the UN and other issues.

These clearly show that the EU’s present generation has a longing for what its forebears did – i.e. to run ‘third world’ countries like their fiefdoms remote controlled from London, Paris and Brussels.

GSP Plus is 8-10 months away for even Sri Lanka’s application to be processed within the EU. Sri Lanka must give detailed accounts in the shape of a comprehensive response to the EU’s letter to the then Foreign Minister back in 2010. New conditions have emerged since. We are told that in one instance, the EU even wants the Supreme Court judgment on the Singararasa case reversed in some form. This case relates to Sri Lanka’s international obligations.

And why be selective? Take the textbook case of fish imports by the EU from India, an issue we have raised so many times for so long only to be met by a deafening silence from Colombo and Brussels. The EU showed a ‘red card’ to Sri Lanka for engaging in IUU (Illegal, Unregulated, Unreported) fishing practices. Well and good. This prevented Sri Lanka from exporting fish products to the EU until it put its house in order on IUU practices, for which there is a worldwide ban.

The EU makes a holistic cry about how much it cares for the subject but imports US$ 1.6 billion worth of fish products from India, a well-known IUU violator. South Indian fishermen indulging in IUU practices in the Palk Straits is well documented.

Taken out of the neocolonial context though, many of the EU’s conditions per se are what the Government of Sri Lanka must nevertheless implement. The EU has even given timeframes (some by now have lapsed) because there’s a sense of impatience all round that Governments in Colombo, past and present, vacillate too much. However, many of these conditions are debatable and highly sensitive issues. The “release of all remaining lands to the rightful civilian owners” (it has to be a reference to the North) is one.

The EU wants this implemented by next month. It wantd electoral reforms in line with the EU recommendations (so, to hell with the recommendations of others, including the Commonwealth Secretariat); it wants the Land Development Ordinance amended to provide equal land succession rights to men and women (but makes no mention to the discriminatory personal law of Thesawalamai practised in the North alone); it even wants the minimum age of marriage under ‘Muslim Law’ amended; it wants a moratorium on the death penalty and calls on the Government of Sri Lanka to “finalise the resettlement of all internal displaced persons”, while having a huge refugee problem on Europe’s own doorstep and not knowing how to deal with it.

It’s a case of do what we say, not as we do. On the other hand, who can argue that the Right to Information Law needs to be passed and the reactivating of the Press Council should be re-considered. So many other “conditions” are basic good governance issues which the Government and the line-ministries responsible for them, must see implemented. The EU even asks for the expeditious conclusion of the bribery and corruption cases, something the whole country is eagerly waiting for.

The problem is, and this has often been said, Sri Lankan Governments, past and present by their own lethargy are permitting these matters to get “internationalised”. The previous Government did it by its stubbornness and the present Government by yielding too easily to the dictates of the pushy West, massaged by self-seeking diasporas to turn small sovereign nations into push-over ‘model states’.

What is required is some ‘in-betweens ’; some healthy negotiating skills and a political willingness at this end to act firmly but fairly, and to put this country’s own house in order, on its own terms and in accordance with the wishes of its own people, not by cowing down to the dictates of others.

Strengthen ties with South India
Across the Palk Strait, invaded thrice weekly by poaching Southern Indian fishermen indulging in IUU practices as it were, is the Tamil Nadu State Assembly election scheduled for tomorrow.

It’s Hobson’s Choice for the 58 million voters – either they re-elect the AIADMK or bring back the DMK, basically two sides of the same coin. For once, Sri Lanka is not on the electoral agenda. Issues like Kachchativu and the arrest of fishermen by the Sri Lanka Navy are minor in comparison to other burning issues in the state. The Indian Prime Minister campaigning for his poorly placed BJP told a rally at Kanyakumari, a coastal town in Tamil Nadu home to many fishermen to engage in deep sea fishing (a reference possibly to avoid poaching in the Palk Strait) and that he is helping the Tamils in Sri Lanka wipe their tears by providing housing assistance – with the help of the Government of Sri Lanka. Striking a more conciliatory note than his predecessors did in the recent past, he said the new Government in Sri Lanka and the Central Government of India have a “good rapport”.

This approach may not win too many votes for the BJP in an election where the ultimate winner is the voter as all the political parties flood the electorate with gold, rice cookers and baksheesh – part and parcel of Tamil Nadu elections. But at least it formed a good foundation for fruitful talks when the Sri Lankan President made a stop-over in New Delhi for a tete’-a-tete’ this week. With trade agreements, or without, Sri Lanka must engage the southern Indian states far more than now than relying on the West for its markets to bring home the dhal.

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