Inter Press Service | 5 December 2008
EUROPE: What Trade Can Have To Do With Trade Unions
By David Cronin
BRUSSELS, Dec 5 (IPS) — The European Union has decided to push ahead with plans to secure a free trade agreement with Colombia despite the widespread abuse of labour rights in that country.
Two years ago the EU and the four countries in the Andean Community — Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador — undertook to open negotiations on liberalising trade between them. Yet because the left-leaning governments led by Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador have proven unenthusiastic to the idea of concluding an agreement, Brussels officials announced this week that they have decided to negotiate with Colombia and Peru only.
The move comes despite complaints from trade unions to the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, detailing how the Colombian authorities have failed to protect labour activists. Over the past five years more trade unionists were murdered in Colombia than in the rest of the world combined, with less than 2 percent of cases leading to prosecutions. Between 1991 and the end of 2007, the total number of trade unionists killed came to at least 2,200.
Ironically, a system already in place under which Colombia’s exports have been granted preferential access to the European markets, is conditional on respect for labour rights, including the implementation of an international agreement allowing trade unions to organise freely. Known as GSP Plus, the scheme is a modified version of the EU’s generalised system of preferences for goods from developing countries.
An umbrella group for social organisations in Latin America has denounced the Commission’s decision to ’split’ the Andean Community, arguing that it will have adverse consequences for the bloc’s cohesion. "The European Commission is playing divide and rule here — carving out deals with the governments of Peru and Colombia, despite the record of the systematic human rights violations by the government of Colombia, and in disregard of the social and environmental costs of its neo-liberal agenda for the Andean people as a whole," said Enrique Daza from the Hemispheric Social Alliance.
Sebastian Valdomir from Friends of the Earth Uruguay argued that the greater opening up of Latin American economies to western food companies would have a disastrous impact on the continent’s agriculture. "We might have to go for single crops like coffee, bananas and biofuels," he said. "It is not going to be good for family crops."
But David O’Sullivan, the Commission’s director-general for trade, insisted that the EU "still wants to negotiate with the Andean Community as a whole. The difficulty is that some members of the Community do not wish to come to the table."
O’Sullivan was speaking at a conference on Global Europe, a 2006 policy document based on the objective of removing barriers — including in certain cases, environmental and social laws — encountered by EU firms doing business abroad.
He acknowledged that the strategy is primarily driven by commercial concerns. "I’m a trade negotiator," he said. "Trade negotiators are a pretty grubby lot of mercantilist people who sit around a table and haggle over numbers. That’s our job."
Yet, he insisted, "nobody, not even the grubbiest trade negotiator believes in unfettered free trade." Adherence to environmental and social standards are "on our radar screen and part of the agenda."
Marc Maes, a trade specialist with the Belgian anti-poverty organisation 11.11.11, argued that the Commission is wedded to the Washington Consensus, the free market doctrine favoured by late U.S. president Ronald Reagan, and former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
"The ideology of the Commission is backward," said Maes. "It is the ideology of 20 years ago. Economic consensus has moved on. Economists are not saying the things that the Commission is saying. The ideological position of the Commission is that (after opening markets) an invisible had will come and lift everyone up through investment. The reality of economics is much more sophisticated."
John Hilary, director of the London-based group War on Want, argued that the world is gripped by three crises: the meltdown of the financial markets, climate change, and the increase in hunger. This confluence presents an opportunity to rethink the rules shaping international trade.
"The problem is that this message hasn’t got to the European Commission," he said. "I don’t know if there has been a news blackout in Brussels. But everywhere else there is an agreement that everything has got to change."
Magda Stoczkiewicz from the Brussels office of Friends of the Earth suggested that the Commission is compartmentalising trade and economic issues, without taking account of their effects on society and the environment.
"We need a smarter strategy that changes the way we consume and produce," she said. "I think we need to change soon because otherwise it will be too late. Global Europe is not delivering what is needed. We need a smart change, we don’t need a rat race."