Controversial Free Trade Agreement bring EU ethics into the Spotlight

By Joshua Butt

On 1st August a new EU free trade agreement with Peru and Colombia to liberalise trade in agricultural, industrial and fisheries products came into force. It is the first of a wave of anticipated deals, many of which will include more Latin American states.

Free trade has always had a central role in the neo-liberal approach of the EU, and the increased ability for the European Parliament to negotiate and ratify trade agreements as a block is testament to the EU’s commitment to improving trade between Europe and the rest of the world.

The deal, thought to be worth around €250million in savings over the next decade, has not been met though with universal approval. Concerns have been raised by the Parliament and by workers unions over whether doing business with Columbia and Peru does not endanger another of the EU’s core dictums, a commitment to Human Rights.

Much of the controversy surrounds the issues of workers rights and conditions, which in Peru and Colombia, as in much of South America, fall far short of European expectations. Not only are conditions poor but trade unionists have been targeted with regular brutality, particularly in Colombia where right-wing groups have been responsible for the murder of many activists. According to the International Trade Unions Confederation 89 trade unionists were murdered between 2007 and 2009.

In response to the agreement Human Rights groups have reacted with anger, citing the agreement as an example of the EU’s prioritisation of economic aims over human rights.

The EU will feel that this free-trade agreement however does have a positive role to play in their mission to spread human rights and have made moves to incorporate these principle into the deal: human rights implications were thoroughly debated in the Parliament leading to the establishment of a supervisory group to oversee the implementation of labour rights that have been included within the treaty. Columbia and Peru do already have legislation in place with respect to human rights and as Ever Causado, Secretary General of Sintramienergetica union representing some 6,000 miners in the coal, gold and gas industries has said, “In our experience the state does not comply with the rules.”

However it may not be through the setting of new laws that the EU can have its greatest effect. As well as reiterating the basic principles of Human Rights, this treaty may give employers both means and motivation to incorporate labour rights into their mode of operation. The early indications are that the free-trade agreement is promoting a trade in luxury goods, where high margins may encourage manufacturers to show some concern for their workers conditions. It is certainly a different set of circumstances to previous trade agreements in the past that have been largely focused on the delivery of cheap commodities to the developed economies at super low prices.

And it’s not just the different economic outlook that indicates that there is reason to be hopeful. While free trade may not bring the levels of investment required to address all the social woes of countries such as Peru or Columbia, and will benefit primarily the wealthiest in these countries and those who control the nation’s industries, it will however mean more than ever that Peru and Columbia will do greater amounts of business with Europe compared with their South American neighbours. As a result labour conditions will have to feature much higher on the political agenda as the EU looks to avoid the embarrassment of being seen to profit from human rights abuses.

The need to impress international onlookers and European consumers may prove to provide exactly the incentive to improve conditions that national policy makers have not managed to encourage. As Ever Causado has said, using the law as a ‘stick’ has not worked as an approach, so maybe the EU’s ‘carrot’ of potential trade benefits will instead be a more effective platform for change.

Critics may still argue that trading with states where human rights is wrong, but isolation of states such as Columbia is surely not the answer.

By increasing the level of scrutiny of Peru and Columbia’s practices and debating them, as well as providing them with both means and motivation to change poor practice is precisely the way in which the EU can spread its human rights message. Time will tell whether the EU will resist the temptation of making easy money from trading with those who do not respect human rights, but with such intense focus on the issue of human rights abuses the signs are at least positive. This ‘soft’ approach, just like the money saved in trade deals, will not be the only answer to what is undoubtedly a complicated problem, but opening the conversation can only prove to be a positive development for the unionists and workers of Peru and Columbia.