The stated objective of Europe’s General Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+) is to “help developing countries assume [and implement] the special burdens and responsibilities” of the 27 core international conventions on “human and labour rights, environmental protection and good governance” which must be ratified by any program beneficiary. This is done through the removal of trade tariffs on a wide range of products. This program has been in operation for over forty years and will be revised at the end of 2020. In light of this upcoming re-evaluation it is important to ask if this tool is truly serving its purpose or if it has been corrupted by economic and geo-political forces.

There are currently eight countries listed as beneficiaries of European Union’s GSP+ program: Armenia, Bolivia, Cabo Verde, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka.

The published literature shared by the European Union (EU) on the GSP+, claims that this scheme follows a strict set of criteria for the issuing of this status, namely an economic need, low levels of imports into the EU and ratification and effective implementation of the 27 core conventions. The GSP+ is the EU’s most beneficial scheme, as it removes all tariffs from over 66% of tariff lines, and is said to be offered only to those countries “that implement international conventions”. The rationale for this is that the implementation of these conventions may lead to some financial costs for beneficiary countries, which should be offset by the increased revenue being generated by exports.

A report was published at the beginning of the year by Dr. Clara Portela, of the University of Valencia, which explored the contributions of various actors working towards achieving the objectives of the GSP+ program. In one section, the report described a prevalent motivation for governments and local authorities to engage with civil society representatives being a sense of fear of losing their preferential status. This was supported with anecdotes from civil society organisations that claimed that governments only reached out to them just as the EU began to contemplate withdrawal of preferences, or right before an EU review. The silver lining on this troubling finding, is that while they may not always like it, authorities do recognise the importance of engaging with civil society in the monitoring of GSP+ obligations.

Another question this report attempted to address was whether or not the GSP+ had thus far created any opportunities for dialogue between civil society and state authorities. Unfortunately, with the exception of Cabo Verde, no intensification of dialogue, or even change in tone, was reported in any of the beneficiary countries.

This report predominantly drew findings from five beneficiary countries: Armenia, Bolivia, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and the Philippines. “Its findings showed that general awareness of the GSP+, and its associated benefits, were limited even within business communities that stood to profit from the program.” This lack of awareness has also been a disappointment for beneficiary country governments, and the EU alike, and can be seen as a significant weakness of the project.

There needs to be heightened engagement with the private sector as they stand to substantially gain from GSP+ but must also share in the responsibility of implementation. The issues of human and labour rights, and the implementation of the GSP+ conventions, is still broadly viewed as a political matter. Going forward, it is essential that business communities, trade unions and civil society organisations are given a more defined place in the GSP+ system in order to aid in the implementation of the program and protect against the prioritisation of profit over the protection of fundamental rights. Some civil society actors have proposed the conditional integration of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights as a means of accomplishing this goal.

The report highlighted that a number of factors affect this focus, such as a lack of understanding on the part of newly accepted beneficiaries, an excuse not extended to long term beneficiaries. In these long-term cases, the report shared insights which suggest that these compliance measures are viewed as something that is solely the responsibility of the governments, as opposed to the economic benefits that are clearly available to businesses. The report also noticed an imbalanced interest, from both businesses and beneficiary governments, in the more technical, economic components of the scheme and less on the political and convention compliance aspects.

In this respect the governments must accept their responsibilities and, to a larger degree, their failures to effectively implement the core conventions established in the Commission’s guidelines as essential for continued access to the GSP+ preference. Similarly, the failure of the European Commission to adequately monitor and investigate the divergence of beneficiary countries from their responsibilities must be addressed. The Commission’s own evaluations show serious concerns on the implementation of human rights conventions, especially in relation to Pakistan, Philippines and Sri Lanka and yet it has not launched any investigations nor suspended the benefits. Indeed, the European Commission’s own transparency has been repeatedly questioned as it puts geo-political strategies above European values and the GSP+ objectives. The GSP+’s objective of promoting sustainable growth in beneficiary countries through the promotion and implementation of human rights conventions is laudable. But when the advocate of these values, the European Union, does not insist on strict adherence to the criteria, can there ever truly be any transformation?

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