Colombia Politics interviewed Member of the European Parliament, Richard Howitt on his reasons for opposing the Colombia EU Free Trade Agreement.
Howitt is a British Labour Party politician, and is a vocal critic in the EP of Colombia´s labour and union rights. Here´s what he had to say.
The free trade agreement between Colombia and the EU was approved in the European Parliament this week. Why do you believe that this shouldn’t go ahead?
I think there are very serious questions that the existing human rights clause and the agreement between Colombia and the European Union is not being respected, nor the fundamental rights that are supposedly guaranteed by the trade preferences given by Europe to Colombia under the GSP class scheme (the Generalised Scheme of Preferences) and I think it would be quite wrong to sign an advanced agreement if the terms of the current one are not being fully honoured.
On the “action plan” that Colombia set out on human rights, labour rights and environmental sustainability ahead of the agreement, do you believe that this doesn’t go far enough? What’s your opinion on the plan that they’ve out forward?
Well, what we know is that last year the Americans used an “action plan” that they agreed with Colombia on labour rights as evidence that they should proceed to ratify their own free trade agreement in Congress. Now less than a year later if you ask the American Trade Union Confederation, the AFLCIO, they say that the action plan has not been put into practice and there is a real danger that Europe is just repeating the mistakes of the Americans, accepting promises rather than waiting for those promises to be turned into real action.
Do you see any pitfalls for the Colombian people in the free trade agreement? Will it benefit them?
I’ve been in Colombia I think eight or nine times as an MEP over the years and I’ve constantly met with Colombian civil society, and there is a strong strand of opinion that in the country the trade that results from this agreement could have a negative socio-economic impact, for example increasing land grabs rather than supporting the process of land restitution. My campaigning with fellow MEPs, trade unions, and civil society organisations against the agreement was always on human rights terms, first and foremost, and that remains my huge disappointment that the European Parliament ignored the argument by ratifying the agreement this week.
In that past you’ve spoken a lot about Colombia being a dangerous place for trade unionists, why is that the case? Who is making it dangerous for trade unionists?
I have seen and heard evidence that not simply the trade unionists who speak out on behalf of workers find themselves threatened, attacked and in some cases murdered, but of complicity by the Colombian regime in relation to those human rights violations, and where it does appear that there is a chain linking members of the current or former regime and members of the military with paramilitary forces who undertake those violations. A trade unionist was murdered literally within hours after the European Parliament voted to ratify this agreement. I’m afraid that is a grim reminder of how dangerous it is to be a trade unionist in Colombia.
I hope that the peace process succeeds; I’ve been campaigning for a peace process to start. I know it’s fraught with difficulties and there are many cynics that say that it is bound to fail. I think that we should all invest as much energy, attention and support that we can to try help it succeed. In any conflict situation the prospects for peace very often look remote if not impossible, but you won’t get peace without a process seeking to achieve it and that for Colombia has now begun.
With the FTA to be implemented, what next for your own campaigning on the matter?
Well on the trade agreement the European Commission Commissioner told us in the debate this week that he would bring forward what they call provisional application which means they will implement the free trade agreement even in advance of ratification by national parliaments, and what I would say to the British Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats who blithely voted for this agreement is that I wonder whether their government really supports Europe implementing an agreement that requires national parliaments to ratify it before the British Parliament has done so. There’s a huge contradiction there in the British position and that’s one that I will seek to exploit.