By Christofer Fjellner
Trade is the best tool to fight poverty in the world. History has shown over and over again how globalisation is gradually eradicating poverty and lifting people all over the world into the middle class. But trade policy can also work as a tool to promote human rights, labour rights and sustainable development.
The decision of the European Commission to cut tariffs for products from Sri Lanka is a very good step in promoting such trade policy: Liberalise trade to help a country lift itself out of poverty with the condition that the country respects human rights, the rule of law and the environment. It’s now time for us in the European Parliament and for the member states to check that Sri Lanka really fulfils their promises in this regard.
There are often reports in the media suggesting that trade helps the exploitation of people in poor countries, helps regimes to oppress their population and damage the environment. But evidence could not be more contradictory to this notion. There is a causal but not perfect relationship with liberalised trade, higher growth and well-functioning societies.
But the trade policy that we adopt in richer countries can do much to make the link between trade and development, rule of law and environmental protection stronger. The gold standard in EU trade policy is the Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP). GSP does just that. And through the GSP+ system, poorer countries can export to the EU with no or very low tariffs on a wide range of products if they ratify and implement 27 conventions on human rights, labour rights, protection of the environment and good governance. The Commission has evaluated Sri Lanka and concluded that the Lankans have done this and decided that they should get the tariff cuts, something that I very much welcome as the responsible MEP.
Now the ball has landed for us in the European Parliament and among member states in the Council to see if we approve of the decision. There will surely be debate, but when doing this we must keep one thing in mind: This is a pretty legalistic exercise. This is about Sri Lanka implementing the 27 conventions and nothing else. That is the only way we can be credible through the GSP system and actually promote the values it was designed to promote.
Several times, I have heard complaints on the countries getting or having GSP+ for policies that are not covered by the conventions. Sometimes, I even hear complaints for purely protectionist reasons. That is equally as bad – the actual policy choice to grant the tariff cuts to countries implementing the conventions has already been made. Not sticking to that just put the EU’s credibility as a partner in trade in jeopardy.
Sri Lanka has gone a long way since the civil war and the persecution of the Tamil people. Much has changed and the Government has made significant efforts in securing the protection of human rights. Some things remain to be done, such as the country’s anti-terrorist act that still allows imprisonment without being presented to a judge for a too long period of time. That must go and I trust the Government and Parliament of Sri Lanka to do all it can to address these issues. We must now look into the details and the UN Human Rights Council report on Sri Lanka that is due on 24 March to check the assessment by the Commission.
We cannot expect countries that get GSP+ to be Norway. In fact, had the countries been like Norway, there would be no reason to even monitor these things. That’s why we have to accept minor shortcomings when it comes to the adherence of the conventions – to use to lower tariffs as a tool to help the improvement in the way the conventions are implemented.
If everything is in order and the shortcomings of Sri Lanka in implementing the conventions are minor, I will be happy to see once again how trade liberalisations can help people lift themselves out of poverty and at the same time improve the protection of their rights.
(Gustav Christofer Ingemar Fjellner is a Swedish politician and Member of the European Parliament. He is a member of the Moderate Party, part of the European People’s Party – European Democrats group.)