Washington Post | PostGlobal | 2 March 2009
EU Takes Realist Tone With Colombia
By Jill O’Donnell
During Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s recent visit to Berlin, two agenda items garnered attention: closer economic ties with Europe and help fighting the drug trade.
Europe is charging ahead on the former. Negotiations over a free trade agreement (FTA) began in mid-February, leaving the EU poised to gain where the United States lost last year. After two years of negotiations and substantial expenditures of political capital by both the Bush administration and President Uribe, Congress refused to vote on the U.S.-Colombia (FTA) over concerns about human rights and labor standards—even after the FTA was revised to include enforceable labor provisions. (The bill ultimately fell victim to an underlying difference in perspective: The Bush administration saw the FTA as a tool for strengthening national security through economic development that could undercut drug activity in Colombia, but the Democrats in control of Congress saw it as a reward that Colombia did not deserve).
Violence against trade union members in Colombia was a highly publicized sticking point in Congress. The issue surfaced in Europe in December, when the European Commission announced that after studying Colombia’s human rights record, it would consider revoking existing trade preferences. But less than a week later, the Commission decided to extend the preferences for two years.
While some in the EU have voiced concern about Colombia’s human rights failures, Europe’s top politicians do not seem interested in linking this problem to the FTA. For Fernando Cardesa Garcia, the European Commission’s Ambassador to Colombia, it’s all business. Earlier this month, he told the Colombian news magazine, Semana, "Basically, we don’t believe the human rights issue is a problem for the negotiations, because it is not an element in the commercial agreement." Chancellor Merkel praised Colombia for an improved human rights record in her meeting with President Uribe, and he noted that German support of Colombia’s efforts to strengthen its justice agencies would be welcome.
Keeping the FTA negotiations on a separate track from European support for Colombia’s civil institutions could be good for free trade and for progress in tackling the problems plaguing Colombia. This approach would keep the trade agreement from becoming mired in a set of problems that require sustained attention in their own right. President Uribe was emphatic about one such problem during his Berlin visit. In an interview with the German newspaper Die Welt, he called on Europe for more help with fighting drugs, and said, "Every hectare on which coca is no longer planted in a Colombian jungle lowers the cocaine supply in Europe. It is to Europe’s benefit to help us!"
He has a point. The United Nations estimates that Colombia produces 61 percent of the global cocaine supply, and cocaine use is rising in Europe. The 2008 report of the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction noted that over the 2001-2006 period, cocaine-related offenses rose in all European countries except Bulgaria, Germany and Slovakia.
This is clearly an entrenched, multi-faceted problem that billions of dollars spent through U.S. anti-drug programs have not been able to solve. But recognition of how demand in Europe fuels the problem is important. Europe should attack this challenge with the same intensity it has shown in pursuing the FTA.
Jill O’Donnell is a graduate student in the IR/International Policy program at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, DC.