Are geopolitics, trade and human rights compatible enemies?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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Europe cannot turn a blind eye to the human rights abuses occurring in third countries, unless we rewrite the mandates of the functioning of the EU institutions and the Treaty, writes MEP Tomáš  Zdechovský.

Tomáš  Zdechovský is a Czech MEP from the European People’s Party group in the European Parliament.

Engagement in geopolitics and setting standards for others to follow has always been the leading role of Europe.

Trade has been central to developing and strengthening relationships with others, in order to establish good governance, sustainable development and the protection of human rights.  But Europe’s founding principles are being increasingly diluted in favour of its strategic partnerships, focused mainly on political influence and trade surpluses.

We cannot turn a blind eye to the Human Rights abuses occurring in third countries, unless we rewrite the mandates of the functioning of the EU institutions and the Treaty.

The European External Action Service (EEAS) defends the view that the “EU’s human rights and democracy policy encompasses civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.”

It continues by stressing that the European Union is founded on a strong engagement to promote and protect human rights, democracy and rule of law worldwide […] This commitment underpins all internal and external policies of the European Union”.

Yet, in contradiction to the responsibility of the EEAS, the Commission for Trade actively endorses the violation of human rights through some of its trade relations including those with the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, the Republic of the Philippines and the Kingdom of Cambodia, to name just a few.

Much of this is done through its trade subsidy schemes, such as Everything But Arms (EBA), the Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP) and the Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP + ).

In January, the European Commission published its evaluation and monitoring report of the 10 GSP+ countries. Several of these staff working documents highlight that there are serious concerns regarding the implementation and violations of the 27 Core Conventions, which are the prerequisite for obtaining GSP+. The plus (+) signifies the promotion of good governance.

In the case of Pakistan, the Commission reflects “serious concerns” relating to good governance such as: the abuse of human rights, the situation of women, the use of torture and military courts against civilians, the situation for journalists and media and the lack of compliance with International Labour Organisation standards.

Additionally,  recent reports from NGOs, the media and the Pakistan Workers’ Federation show a deterioration of the situation in the last four years, since GSP + has been granted to Pakistan. The situation is similar, but not as severe, for several other GSP+ recipient countries.

The credibility of the European Union is at stake when we ignore our duty of care to others, and indeed to our own consumers, businesses and workers inside the EU.

The cost of cheap clothes should not be underestimated. Lives are lost and destroyed in their production, and we have a responsibility to ensure trade is fair and does not allow for the violation of economic, social and cultural rights of those inside and outside of Europe.

The European Commission should be reminded that, pursuant to Article 207 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, the EU’s common commercial policy must be conducted “in the context of the principles and objectives of the Union’s external action“, and that, pursuant to Article 3 of the Treaty on European Union, it must contribute, inter alia, to sustainable development, the eradication of poverty and protection of human rights.

The European Commission (DG Trade) and my colleagues in the Trade Committee of the European Parliament should agree to launch an investigation, at the very least, into the actual implementation of the 27 international conventions, which are the prerequisite for the granting of GSP+ and  that the recipient countries have ratified and committed to effectively implement.

Those who are violating the conditions must be suspended from the scheme, in order to reward and protect those compliant with the rules and in order to strengthen the EU’s influence globally through trade. If we don’t take the implementation of our own standards serious, we are undermining our efforts from the get-go.

A mere slap on the wrist for countries, which are breaking more than half of the requested conventions, cannot be sufficient.

So to be clear: The GSP and GSP+ trading system is a laudable tool. Let us therefore strengthen it through better implementation. The carrot does not work without the stick.

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