Colombia and Peru are fast approaching the final stages of ratification of a Free Trade Agreement with the European Union. It is a major agreement that offers a bridge for ever-widening relations and commerce between South America and the Union. And in our age of globalization such a bridge is very necessary.
The F.T.A. was well-negotiated by the European Commission, and has already been ratified by the Council, which is made up of the governments of the European Union. The final step now lies with the European Parliament, which must ratify it too.
This is as it should be: The liberalization of commerce between the European Union and the two Latin American countries concerned will ultimately create more opportunities, more jobs and a better future for the peoples of Colombia, Peru and the European Union. It is therefore only fitting that the direct representatives of the peoples of Europe have a central role in assuring that the accord takes into account essential principles of economic viability — as well as social justice, human and labor rights and environmental sustainability.
However, a narrow, almost exclusive, focus on these issues can also prevent us from understanding the broader importance of the agreement — not just for Colombia and Peru, but for Europe and its role as a leading political and commercial actor in the world.
This is especially true in the case of Colombia, an established democracy since the early 19th century. For the past four decades the country has had to face challenges unknown to most states, especially in post-Cold War Europe. From severe internal conflict to drug trafficking, Colombia has had to deal with large-scale disruption while also seeking to evolve in an age of globalization.
In fact, over the last 10 years, and especially since President Juan Manuel Santos took office in 2010, a robust program of legal, administrative and military measures has been put in place that has produced impressive results. Officials in the political, military and commercial sectors are all held to account, in a manner comparable to that accepted in the European Union.
In parallel — and as a consequence of the new-found political stability — Colombia’s economy is growing at a solid rate. Peru has also emerged from turmoil and is making a concerted effort to further modernize its economy and extend the benefits among its population.
Both Colombia and Peru offer opportunities not only for investors or those hoping to compete for infrastructure projects, but also for all European producers, in every sector. In a time of global — and especially European financial crisis — is it wise to spurn growing markets like those of Colombia or Peru?
The European Union is correct to place emphasis upon Western values, especially human rights. But it is also important to engage in debate as to how we best attain these rights. There are those who assert that by signing a free trade agreement with Colombia and Peru we are denying their weaker citizens such rights in favor of the interests of business. On the other hand, we can argue that by engaging with these states, by signing an official accord, we gain better leverage and access.
I strongly believe the latter argument to be the case. South America is an emerging force on the global stage, and Colombia is prominent within it. The United States and Canada — not a state known to be lenient on matters of human rights — have already signed free trade agreements with Colombia. China is also knocking at its door, seeking to sign a free trade agreement as quickly as possible. If the European Union wants to retain its primacy in the face of this force, it must act wisely, and assertively.
In writing these words I am not proposing we put commerce and the interests of corporations before human rights and the security of trade unionists. What I am proposing is that we give Colombia’s government credit for the huge progress it has made; that we put faith — and verifiable mechanisms — in the progress it will continue to make; and that we take a step forward in forging a true partnership with Colombia and Peru. Not only will it change lives and create jobs on the other side of the Atlantic, it will also help our own continent in its hour of need. As my American friends so nicely put it, it will allow us to do well by doing good.
**Javier Solana has served as foreign minister of Spain, secretary general of NATO, and E.U. High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy.