TIES THAT BIND
Ambassador Grace Asirwatham highlights the benefits of global relationships
Q: As Sri Lanka continues to seek assistance from various nations and lending agencies, what role could the EU – as its second-largest trading partner after China and a key export destination – play?
A: The EU has played a significant role in supporting Sri Lanka in economic cooperation, development and humanitarian aid, technical assistance, investment and business partnerships, and sustainable development.
Its financial cooperation is guided by a multi-annual indicative programme (MIP) that accounts for Sri Lanka’s national policy priorities and support for it achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and European Union strategies on connectivity and cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region.
The EU earmarked 60 million euros for Sri Lanka for 2021-2024.
Furthermore, Paris Club members and non-members from the European Union supported Sri Lanka’s request for debt treatment through an official creditor committee.
Moreover, EU member states represented on the IMF board proactively supported Sri Lanka on its decision to conclude the US$ 3 billion Extended Fund Facility (EFF) programme for its economic policies and reforms.
Q: With EU-Sri Lanka discussions on enhancing bilateral trade ties underway, what potential is there for expanding trade in the future?
A: Sri Lanka’s ongoing engagement with the EU will help strengthen market access, investment, joint ventures, product and market diversification, and sustainable and ethical trade.
It’s crucial to focus on evolving consumer preferences towards healthier and more sustainable options, and green production processes, as we aim to cater to growing EU demand for natural and organic, zero waste, recycled, fair trade and sugar free products.
The main instrument governing EU-Sri Lanka trade is the Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP). Sri Lankan exports to the bloc gradually increased from € 2.7 billion in 2017 to three billion euros last year. Overall, GSP+ utilisation increased from 62 percent to 80 percent between 2019 and 2022.
In the draft of the new GSP regulation for 2024-34, a process is being introduced to streamline the grant of cumulation benefits to recipient countries. This will facilitate increasing our apparel industry’s utilisation of the zero tariff benefits.
Q: How would you describe bilateral ties between Sri Lanka and Belgium – and how can this diplomatic relationship be strengthened going forward?
A: Bilateral ties between Sri Lanka and Belgium have been positive, longstanding and multifaceted. The island’s fourth largest export destination in the EU, Belgium was among its top 10 potential markets for tourism in May.
The recent MOU on bilateral consultations between the countries’ foreign ministries is expected to add new dynamism to existing bilateral relations, and increase regular high-level meetings and exchanges promoting investment and business partnerships.
Such initiatives will assist in expanding the depth and breadth of this relationship while building a sustainable partnership for years to come.
Sri Lanka’s ongoing engagement with the EU will help strengthen market access, investment, joint ventures, product and market diversification, and sustainable and ethical trade
Q: Foreign direct investment (FDI) and promoting tourism are among hot topics at the moment. What is your assessment of this, given the need to bolster Sri Lanka’s forex reserves?
A: FDI and promoting tourism can play a crucial role in bolstering Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange reserves. The nation can focus more on implementing targeted marketing campaigns, diversifying source markets, and introducing digital facilities to improve visitors’ safety and wellbeing.
The incentives and policy framework to attract FDI and encourage long-term investments should be made more lucrative and competitive to make Sri Lanka an attractive investment destination.
Q: What is the EU Green Deal and how can Sri Lanka benefit from this in the long run?
A: It’s a package of policy initiatives designed to set the EU on the path to a green transition with the goal of making Europe the first climate neutral continent by 2050. This package’s initiatives cover climate, the environment, energy, transport, industry, agriculture and sustainable finance, which are strongly interlinked.
The EU will support partner countries in fulfilling their Paris Agreement obligations through various programmes. For example, Sri Lanka’s MIP has ‘green recovery’ as the first priority area.
Furthermore, the draft for the new GSP regulation contributes to the Green Deal objectives by extending negative conditionality to international environmental and good governance conventions including the Paris Agreement.
The EU’s Green Deal strategy has external dimensions focussing on a collective global achievement. It will build green alliances with partner countries and regions to achieve its ambition.
Q: And finally, what inspired you to pursue a diplomatic career?
A: My career could have gone in a number of directions. I joined the Sri Lanka Foreign Service (SLFS) – then the Sri Lanka Overseas Service (SLOS) – in 1988 because it seemed different from other government services.
The prospect of working abroad in numerous missions was attractive, and it offered exposure to opportunities for career advancement and life experiences.
I was ambitious and courageous, and wanted to be a diplomat and professionally represent Sri Lanka abroad, to promote political, economic and multilateral diplomacy for its benefit.
Bachelor’s in Business Administration (University of Jaffna)
Master’s in International Relations (University of Colombo)
Ambassador of Sri Lanka to Belgium and Luxembourg
Head of Mission to the European Union (EU)
COUNTRY OF RESIDENCE
CITY OF RESIDENCE
CV IN A NUTSHELL
Grace Asirwatham is a retired member of the Sri Lanka Foreign Service (SLFS), and has served as a diplomat and an international civil servant for 35 years.
Her roles have included Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Nepal and the Netherlands, and Permanent Representative to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Asirwathamhas also served in Sri Lanka’s missionsin Germany and Pakistan.
Additionally, she has held several senior positions in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Colombo, the most recent being Secretary to the State Ministry for Foreign Affairs.
Asirwatham was conferred the title of ‘Sri Lankabimanya Deshabandu Diriya Matha’ by the Sri Lanka Wiswa Samadhi Padanama in Kandy in recognition of her services to promote bilateral relationsbetween Nepal and Sri Lanka.