Colombia and the EU: Agreement is a step forward

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Colombia is transitioning from a country torn apart by internal conflicts to a spirited democracy complete with a functioning rule of law, says Günther Verheugen. Europe should encourage this with an EU-Colombia trade agreement, he argues.

Günter Verheugen is former vice president of the European Commission in charge of enterprise policy. He contributed this commentary exclusivity to EurActiv.

"In the turbulence of the euro crisis and the future of the European Union, one announcement has almost disappeared, although it deserves full attention: the signature of the trade agreement between the EU, its member states and Colombia and Peru on 26 June in Brussels.

Colombia? Is that not the country that makes the headlines above all because of the drug wars, the political murders and the kidnappings? Is that not the country that many had already written off as a hopeless case, where illegally armed militias have threatened the freedom of security of its inhabitants again and again for decades?

As often is the case, bad news remains in our conscience for a long time and prevents us from seeing the changes for the better and from believing good news. Colombia is in the midst of a process of change. It is transitioning from a country torn apart by internal conflicts to a spirited democracy complete with a functioning rule of law. It has made measurable progress in the war against terrorism and organised crime.

The security situation is still not perfect, but it is still much better than before. Under President Santos the country is striving to improve the human rights situation in a broad manner. The lives of trade unionists - a favoured target of right-wing terror - is still threatened, but the number of victims has decreased for the past two years. Colombia is making great efforts in the protection of its indigenous population and also in the preservation of its ecosystem, which is of great importance for the global climate. If all of this is surprising, one should not forget that there exists an old democratic and law-based tradition in Colombia which was not given up by Colombian society, even during the most dangerous times. 

With all of this in mind, the international community must confront the following question: what can one do in order to support the country in its reform efforts? In principle there are two possibilities. One is to isolate a country in order to enforce changes. That does not succeed often. The other possibility is to encourage a country, to integrate it into the international political system and in international economic relationships and to move the country along gradually. The European Union possesses a rich treasury of experiences as to how one can support necessary reforms in a transitional country. The EU has always relied upon on integration and pre-accession and the experience has been a positive one, as the developments in Central and Eastern Europe demonstrate.

Experience also speaks in favour of choosing that path again this time, and it is not a coincidence that important changes have moved forward in Colombia since the launch of the negotiations on the trade agreement. The USA and Canada have also taken this route in addition to the EU. This is because a trade agreement is always more than an economic balancing of interests. It is an important political signal that one is committed to the future in these mutual relationships, to a partnership and not on stalemate or conflict.

The trade agreement between the EU and Colombia is one such signal. But it is not yet completely wrapped up. The European Parliament, which first must approve the agreement according to provisions of the Lisbon Treaty, rightfully desires further visible advancements and guarantees that the reforms will be promoted further. This is about credibility but also about getting to know each other better, and therefore it is good that the European Parliament is getting involved with the state of affairs in Colombia. In addition, the national parliaments of all EU member-states will have to ratify the treaty.

The EU’s capacity to act internationally is important, because the current debt crisis is not allowed to cause the EU, concerned solely with its own problems, to forget its international responsibility. The EU, through the example of the trade agreement with Colombia, must demonstrate that even during the crisis it is betting on a tomorrow, on political and economic freedom. The agreement with Colombia, with its dialogue and control mechanisms, signifies a stable framework of relationships, which moreover opens up to the EU direct influence on the progress of constitutional and social reforms and on sustainable environmental politics.

Colombia is, moreover, an interesting partner economically. The country possesses a quickly growing market and offers the European Union great possibilities. It would by no means at all be in the interests of our own European national economies, who are fighting for growth, to relinquish the opening of the Colombian market to the USA and Canada alone. Put shortly: the EU would do well to set out on the path of partnership with Colombia."

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