The EU could be at risk of breaching global trade rules — if it pushes ahead with a controversial plan to link trade benefits to resettling migrants.
That’s the verdict of a former World Trade Organization lawyer, as the European institutions gear up for negotiations Thursday on renewing a scheme offering preferential tariffs to developing countries.
The plan, known as the Generalized Scheme of Preferences or GSP, allows developing countries to export goods to the EU at low or no tariffs.
In its revised version, Brussels and EU capitals want to make the lower tariffs conditional on third countries taking back undocumented migrants.
Withdrawing trade preferences because a country fails to cooperate in returning migrants is “incompatible” with WTO rules, according to Geraldo Vidigal, a former WTO lawyer and an international trade law lecturer at the University of Amsterdam.
This condition “does not respond to the development, financial or trade needs of developing countries … but to a political objective of the European Union,” and is therefore against the WTO legal basis of such schemes, Vidigal added in a legal opinion requested by two NGOs and shared with POLITICO.
This would mean that countries like Afghanistan or Bangladesh could lose their trade preferences if they refuse to take back asylum seekers whose applications to stay in Europe have been rejected.
The European Parliament is unhappy with the proposed linkage between trade and immigration, and there is also pushback from third countries. A diplomat from one GSP beneficiary country said that adding migration to the proposed rules goes “way beyond GSP.”
“What type of objectives are you going to achieve from the readmission link?,” asked the diplomat, requesting anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
Conceived over 50 years ago, the GSP scheme aims to help low-income countries develop their economies and encourages them to implement human rights, labor and environmental reforms. Its provisions expire at the end of the year, and EU institutions are making haste to come up with a new plan that would apply for the next 10 years.
Nearly 1 million new arrivals requested asylum in Europe last year, the largest number in seven years. With some national governments calling for the EU to get tough on uncontrolled migration, Brussels is more determined than ever to use all levers at its disposal — including trade preferences — to rein in illegal entries.
The proposal has also stoked anger among human rights campaigners who argue the EU is blackmailing third countries. A group of 20 organizations called this week to abandon the contentious link, arguing in a letter that it puts partnerships with third countries “at risk.”
Under the new plan, partner countries would also need to respect more demanding labor, human rights or environmental standards, or see their preferences withdrawn. That’s another bugbear for third countries, which worry about Brussels’ increased green standards in pursuit of climate goals and labor rights.
“It is too much of a regulatory burden that you’re putting on your trade partners,” the diplomat from the GSP beneficiary country said. “We’re supposed to be helped with an instrument like this.”
A Commission spokesperson said that withdrawing the tariff preferences “remains — in all cases — of exceptional nature and it is a measure of last resort in the cooperation between the EU and GSP beneficiary countries.”
The spokesperson cited the initial proposal to stress that “orderly international migration can bring important benefits to the countries of origin and destination of migrants and contribute to their sustainable development needs.”
It is essential for origin and destination countries to address “common challenges” around migrant returns, the spokesperson added, so as to “avoid a constant drain in active population in the countries of origin, with the ensuing long-term consequences on development.”