Parliament sets out concerns over Colombia trade deal
The European Union's ongoing free trade negotiations with Colombia featured twice in European Parliament debates last week, with deputies from across the political spectrum raising serious concerns over the South American country's human rights record.
The Spanish EU presidency has said it is keen to finalise the deal under its watch, with the tussle set to escalate over the coming months ahead of a EU-Latin American summit scheduled to take place in Madrid this May.
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Parliament's trade committee is set to call for a debate on the subject at a March plenary session in Strasbourg, and will urge the European Commission to launch a formal enquiry into the country's human rights abuses.
A resolution on the EU's long-standing banana dispute with Latin American countries last December cleared a stumbling block to initialing the agreement, with commission officials saying the Colombian negotiations are now "in the final stages."
Under the EU's new Lisbon Treaty rules, the European Parliament gained an equal footing with member states in ratifying EU trade deals, leaving deputies keen to use their new powers.
The Greens, the far-left, a majority of socialists and a considerable number of centre-right MEPs, all harbour strong reservations over the Colombian accord as it currently stands, potentially scuppering Spanish plans for a speedy ratification.
Trade unionist murders
Objection to the deal centres primarily round the country's high rate of murders of trade unionists, accounting for 60 percent of the world total.
Trade unions also accuse the government of President Alvaro Uribe of collaboration with Colombia's extensive network of right-wing parliamentaries, and condemn the judiciary's low rate of prosecutions.
According to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and Colombia's principle trade union confederation, the CUT, 39 trade unionists were murdered in 2007 in the country, with 49 murders in 2008.
Alberto Vanegas, director of human rights at the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores union told MEPs last week the violence amounted to a "political genocide of the trade unionist movement," and urged the EU not to sign the free trade agreement.
Irish centre-right MEP Gay Mitchell said the killings were "unacceptable," while British socialist MEP Michael Cashman said his UK Labour Party colleagues would not support the deal without an investigation. "I see the fact that we have not signed the agreement as a great way to push for increased changes," he said.
The US, Canada and Norway have all negotiated bilateral trade deals with Colombia, only to see them held up in their respective parliaments due to similar human rights concerns.
Supporters of a trade agreement say greater co-operation with Colombia is the best way to bring about improvements inside the country however, citing reports of recent reductions in the number of killings as a further reason.
"I think it would be very unfair, given the progress that has been made on human rights, not to sign the agreement," said Spanish centre-right MEP Jose Ignacio Salafranca.
Observers say parliament's new trade powers will also bring greater lobbying pressure, with left-leaning critics citing Spain's struggling domestic economy and considerable business interests in Colombia as being behind the government's haste to secure a deal.
Pointing to potential gains for Spanish companies such as Repsol and Telefonica, Paul-Emile Dupret, an advisor to the left-wing GUE/NGL group in the parliament, said the Spanish government was leaning hard on its MEPs. Others cited Colombia's largely untapped mineral deposits as attracting the interest of European big business.
"Spanish businesses are pressing MEPs to pursue the Spanish government's agenda," Tom Kucharz from the Spanish environmental organisation, Ecologistas en Accion, told this website.
The EU initiated discussions for a region-to-region Association Agreement containing trade, political dialogue and co-operation aspects in 2007 with the group of Andean nations - Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia.
But a breakdown in negotiations in 2008 led to the EU initiating bilateral discussions on free trade agreements with Peru and Colombia in early 2009. Bolivian President Evo Morales subsequently said this "seriously weakened" the Andean integration process.