Pakistan’s worries regarding the European Union’s GSP+ status review

With the European Union (EU) delegation’s proposed visit to Islamabad this month for biennial review of its Generalized Schemes of Preference (GSP) Plus status drawing nearer, Pakistan’s worries are increasing. While its own efforts for progress in compliance are slow and inadequate, it would also need to comply with 27 UN Conventions to the full satisfaction of the EU for the retention of GSP+ facility, especially in the absence of political patronage from the UK post the Brexit. Further, the new revised GSP+ scheme of the EU, which would be operative with effect from 2024, stipulates 5 new pre-requisites along with the previous 27 UN conventions for availing GSP+ facility. The additional criteria under the new and revised scheme proposed in September 2021 by the EU, is expected to further reduce Pakistan’s chances for acquiring the EU facility.

On its part, Islamabad is lobbying intensively to retain its GSP+ status as this plays a crucial role in boosting its exports. As a result of GSP+, Pakistan’s exports to the EU increased from €4.538 billion in 2013-14 to €7.492 billion 2020-21, an increase of 65%. Owing to the concession, the EU is now Pakistan’s second most important trading partner, accounting for 14.3% of Pakistan’s total trade in 2020 and absorbing 28% of Pakistan’s total exports, which are primarily textiles and clothing.

But Pak has so far not been able to satisfy the EU about its seriousness with regard to compliance of GSP+ criteria. During the 6th round of the EU-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue (Brussels: December 7, 2021), the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission (HR/VP) Josep Borrell, expressed concern over the human rights situation in Pakistan, particularly over the alleged misuse of the death penalty and blasphemy laws. An EU team which visited Pakistan in November 2021 also found the ground situation unsatisfactory. The recent mob lynching of Sri Lankan factory manager Priyantha Kumara in Sialkot in December 2021 on the accusations of blasphemy has further dented Islamabad’s claims of improvement. The EU delegation would focus on the country’s real progress during the last two years in the state of human rights including those of women, minorities, labour and children, despite Islamabad’s claim regarding perceptible progress on these facets.

Earlier, Phil Hogan, the EU Commissioner of Trade, wrote to the Pak Advisor on Commerce and Investment stating that focus of the upcoming evaluation would be on implementing a comprehensive child labour law, definition of the most serious crimes for which death sentences are given. A non-comprehensive anti-torture law, prosecution for enforced disappearances & secret detentions and adoption/implementation of the Journalists Welfare and Protection Law, among others, according to international standards.
The EU missions have been continuously highlighting Pakistan’s labour rights violations in Export Promotion Zones, child protection, death penalty, international non-governmental organizations and media freedom. For instance, Luis Garicano, a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) from Spain specifically linked Islamabad’s respect for human rights, particularly on blasphemy laws, minority and women’s rights and press freedom, to a renewal of the GSP+.

Pak does not seem to have made much progress since EU’s 3rd Biennial review published in 2020. The EU had then observed that Pakistan had failed to make meaningful advances in protecting human rights, particularly in relation to the country’s controversial blasphemy laws. Those accused of blasphemy are subject to immediate incarceration, and most accused are denied bail. Many, even when acquitted or released from jail, have been murdered.

Islamabad’s worries are due to its failure in convincing the EU about progress with regard to the UN Conventions in the country. Notably, Islamabad remained under attack throughout 2021 by the European Parliament (EP) for human rights violations. In April 2021, the EP adopted a resolution on the blasphemy laws, in particular the case of Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel and to find out whether there is sufficient reason to initiate a procedure for the temporary withdrawal of this facility. It also expressed concern over the violent anti-France protests in the country and inflammatory statements made by the Pak authorities.

Islamabad had managed to get GSP+ status in the EU due to political patronage by the UK. Post Brexit, Pakistan has lost the support of 73 former British MEPs who used to vote for the country and promote its case. In the absence of political patronage from the UK, it would be increasingly hard for Pakistan to retain GSP+, especially if it fails to take measures for full compliance of the requisite criteria of the EU. Given the nature of rule of law in the country and its feudal and patriarchal nature of society, this remains a tall order.