June 27, Colombo: Even if Sri Lanka can reach and maintain upper-middle-income country status in the next few years, the country's economy will benefit from regaining the European Union's Generalized Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+) for at least five years, the global publishing firm, Oxford Business Group (OBG) says.
The OBG says the recent decision by the EU to reinstate Sri Lanka to its tariff exemption scheme, designed to assist developing countries in achieving upper-middle-income status, should serve to boost exports and generate renewed private sector investment.
On May 19 the EU formally restored Sri Lanka to the ranks of countries that benefit from the enhanced Generalized System of Preferences Plus (GSP+), which provides additional tariff preferences.
The move was an acknowledgement that the country had committed to ratifying and implementing 27 international conventions covering issues such as human rights, labor conditions, environmental protection and good governance.
The restoration of Sri Lanka's GSP+ status means tariffs on more than 6000 products have been removed, with the complete lifting of duties on some two-thirds of all tariff lines.
The easing of the tariff barriers will likely serve to increase trade flows even further, to Sri Lanka's benefit, the OBG says. Of the nearly €4bn in bilateral trade recorded last year, Sri Lankan exports to EU member states accounted for €2.6bn, giving it a strong trade surplus.
With some estimates putting the immediate boost in revenue from the lifting of many of the tariffs at €300m, and the opening up European markets to Sri Lankan products set to increase this further, prospects for local exporters are on the rise.
According to the OBG report, if Sri Lanka's exports to the EU resume their pre-2010 levels, there could be a surge in growth in a number of key primary and secondary industries.
In the five years prior to the revocation of Sri Lanka's GSP+ privileges, the country's exports to the bloc rose at an average annual rate of 16.4%. While exports have continued to increase in the years since, this rate of growth has been less than half the 2005-09 level, albeit at a still robust 7.4% per annum.
The expected boost in shipments to the EU is timely for Sri Lanka, which has seen its overall exports ease in recent years.
In addition to reviving its trade metrics, Sri Lanka's return to the GSP+ fold should also spur investment in some key sectors - particularly textiles and agriculture, which account for the bulk of current shipments to the EU, OBG says.
"Private sector investment is already on the rise as confidence in the economy gains pace. With the added incentives of an open door to EU markets, there could be a further increase in spending on export-focused production."
However, OBG cautions that as was demonstrated in 2010, GSP+ concessions are not fixed, and remain subject to constant monitoring and revision. "Should Sri Lanka's progress towards meeting international and EU criteria wane, it could put its status at risk again."
Furthermore, under EU trade regulations, any country benefitting from the GSP+ scheme that achieves and maintains upper-middle-income country status for three years is deemed to be economically advanced enough to not need the additional support, and is therefore removed from the scheme.
Even with some estimates suggesting Sri Lanka could achieve this status in the next few years, the country's economy is likely to enjoy, at a minimum, half a decade or more of privileged access to the EU market, allowing producers and exporters to further build capacity, and cement trade links with Europe.