Focus on issues that’ll help you get GSP Plus

The European Union is moving from a development partner of Bangladesh to trade partner as Bangladesh is graduating to a developing country by 2024. After 50 years of Bangladesh’s independence, how does the EU look at its relationship with the country? Rensje Teerink, EU Ambassador to Bangladesh, shared her thoughts in a recent interview with The Daily Star.

TDS: How do you assess Bangladesh’s progress?

Teerink: Bangladesh has been a very trusted partner of the EU since its birth in 1971. In the first decade, the relationship was characterised by development assistance. We worked with NGOs like Brac, Proshika and GSS that were filling in the gaps where the government had some challenges. Our main development funds were directed through these NGOs. I must say that our relations has now enormously moved to trade.

TDS: How has that relationship changed?

Teerink: EBA (Everything But Arms) has been the game changer. That has enabled Bangladesh to step in and focus on RMG exports to the EU. It is admirable how Bangladesh used the opportunity. It really lifted the RMG and textile to become the second largest producer in the world. Out of 47 countries under EBA, Bangladesh is the biggest beneficiary. Some 60 percent of the benefits were actually reaped by Bangladesh. It is really the one country that stands out. The vision and the strong determination that the government is showing as it moves towards graduation from Least Developing Country (LDC).

TDS: Businesses have been affected due to the pandemic. Are you taking any new strategy?

Teerink: We need to be proud of Bangladesh that it has been able to provide stimulus packages and find ways to continue businesses and help the people during the pandemic. This is where we want to step in and provide support. In the first wave, Germany and we came up with assistance of €130 million for social protection scheme. That will go as payments to the workers of the RMG, leather and footwear industries. The payment is not one off. The first disbursement of our frontloading money would actually be a pilot. The ultimate goal is to help Bangladesh become a country that has a social security system. That will also be important for the country to achieve the SDGs and eventually become a developed country by 2041.

TDS: What are the challenges that Bangladesh faces at this juncture of time?

Teerink: Bangladesh needs to be vigilant and ensure its economic situation remains stable during the pandemic. For example, we have seen some glitches in the global supply chain where Bangladesh has suffered along with many other countries. There, we have looked at the whole question of mandatory due diligence. Hopefully, the EU will pass a new law on it. That will shield the RMG companies from the situation where buyers have not lived up to the promises of honouring orders or paying for orders that have already been produced. We need to work on that, and in 2021 we hope to have a sustainability compact in Bangladesh.

Another challenge that Bangladesh faces is the need for diversifying its export basket. So far, the export has been mostly reliant on RMG. The government has already begun working on it. We would also support Bangladesh in many ways, including by encouraging our companies to step up investments. However, we think Bangladesh still needs to do some homework for doing business with ease. We are already engaged with the government and are trying to make it more pragmatic. Our private sector companies are working to single out the main obstacles that prevent EU companies from making bigger investments. I think the business climate would be better in the coming days. Ultimately, it will help Bangladesh a lot.

TDS: How would EU act as Bangladesh transitions from LDC to a developing country?

Teerink: We have been working on the Multi-Annual Financial Framework for seven years. That is going to be 1.8 trillion Euro package. Euro 800 billion is basically for the Covid response in Europe. More than one trillion Euros will be for development cooperation and other aspects. That means we can start working over seven years and Bangladesh will remain an important partner country. We will be working in the next few months on the allocation for Bangladesh. Humanitarian assistance will always be there if there is a humanitarian crisis. As of now, we see trade to be important. We are also in the process of adapting GSP Plus. We don’t know at this stage what it would look like but we hope Bangladesh would be ready to be eligible for the GSP Plus scheme.

TDS: What are the criteria that can make Bangladesh eligible for GSP Plus?

Teerink: Bangladesh needs to respect the human rights and ILO conventions. The GSP Plus has more of these conventions than the EBA. It requires improvement of not only human rights and labour rights, but also environmental rights. That’s quite a big package of convention for which Bangladesh needs to make some progress. I think the country has already signed on most of the ILO conventions right from the time of independence. That’s a good step. Very often, it is the matter of implementation that needs progress. The Bangladesh Labour Act has been amended, which is a welcome move. However, it is not enough. It is important that Bangladesh makes progress on the labour rights roadmap. This is an ongoing discussion we are having with the government.

TDS: What about human rights?

Teerink: I must say we are quite pleased with the openness from the government on these issues. For example, we have always been critical of the Digital Security Act because we face a lot of questions in the European Parliament and the EU-based human rights organisations. When they see journalists being arrested, we face questions. So, through our human rights dialogue and diplomatic consultations, we have discussed these with the government. So far, we had a good meeting with the law minister and we are now waiting for a follow-up meeting. I think the discussions were open and frank with good indications of progress. Similarly, we are also following the Universal Periodic Review exercise. There have been some workshops going on where we have been part of the UN. I think those were useful.

TDS: How is the EU cooperating with Bangladesh on climate change?

Teerink: The EU is working on the European Green Deal. This is the new flagship motto that encompasses the measures in meeting the Paris Agreement and mitigating climate change. The goals are reducing 55 percent carbon emission by 2030 and making the EU carbon neutral by 2050. The EU’s actions have also prompted other players like China and India to set similar goals. We are now focusing on going away from coal to renewable energy like wind solar. Researches are underway for an experimental reactor in France. Greening the houses, improving energy efficiency and imposing carbon tax on countries that produce without stringent environmental criteria will be the means of future to protect the environment. In Bangladesh, we will focus on decent work and green energy.

About cooperation with Bangladesh… I think the government is very interested about the Delta Plan. It is promising. It is not only about water management but also on tackling climate change. We can work with other donors, international financial institution or private sectors on implementing the plan.

TDS: How do you assess Bangladesh’s performance in addressing climate change impacts?

Teerink: I think climate change is very high on Bangladesh’s agenda. What is missing in the conversation is environmental protection… preserving the rivers. The encroachment of rivers cannot just continue unabated because it is endangering the water bodies. Also ensuring food security and keeping the Bay of Bengal safe is important. Blue economy is largely untapped in Bangladesh but it has to be sustainable blue economy. Another thing worth mentioning is the protection of the Sundarbans that saves the country from cyclones. Transport of coals through the Sundarbans’ very fragile ecosystem also endangers the forest. If the unique ecosystem, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, is lost, I think you will never get it back. Bangladesh should do everything that it can to protect the forest. If we could help, we would be very happy to do so.

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