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EU: Free Trade Agreements

Volume 716: debated on Monday 18 January 2010

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they support the proposed free trade agreements being negotiated by Peru and Colombia with the European Union.

My Lords, the Government support the free trade agreements being negotiated between the EU and Peru and Colombia. They help to open markets comprehensively, tackling a wide variety of barriers to trade beyond tariffs at the border. We believe that they are an important tool to support economic growth in developed and developing countries. They also help to promote core EU values in partner countries such as sustainability and the protection of human rights.

My Lords, that is extremely welcome news, but given the noble Lord’s wide experience of these matters in Brussels in his previous occupation, can he say when he thinks that these agreements will be concluded? Obviously the sooner they are, the sooner that benefits will start to accrue in connection with investment and job creation.

My Lords, my personal experience extends to the fact that I originally obtained the mandate and launched the negotiations for this free trade agreement. I am afraid that these agreements always take longer than was originally hoped. The central problem in this negotiation is that originally it was conducted on a region-to-region basis with all four members of the Andean community. However, Bolivia and Ecuador subsequently decided to come out of the negotiations. I hope that they can now make definitive progress. The next round starts in Lima either today or tomorrow, almost as we speak, and the European Union hopes to complete the full negotiation in the first half of this year.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that we debated bilateral EU trade agreements in this House during the last Spanish presidency in 2002? Can the noble Lord give us a feel for how existing bilateral agreements are working, perhaps starting with Mexico and of course including Brazil and Chile, before we embark on the next round of negotiations?

My Lords, I could go on an extended tour of Latin America. The EU’s free-trade agreement with Mexico is working well but needs to be extended and deepened to embrace services trade; and with Chile it is working exceedingly well in all areas of trade. We do not have a bilateral agreement with Brazil. We have an outstanding negotiation between the EU and the Mercosur countries, which include Brazil, but that is being held up by the delays in the multilateral negotiations in the Doha round. My preference would be to see the EU-Mercosur negotiations restarted because to wait for the completion of the Doha round would be a little long.

My Lords, obviously this free-trade agreement will deliver benefits to Peru and Colombia. My noble friend the Secretary of State alluded briefly to human rights: what importance, if any, should we attach to the fact that the European Federation of Public Service Unions and the European Trade Union Confederation have given solid backing to Colombia’s unions in their call for the negotiations to be suspended or blocked until they are assured that the human rights abuses, which they claim are often directed at them, have been stopped? Is there a case that they should be suspended until we hear the results of the investigation which is being carried out into Colombia’s human rights record under the current GSP Plus of the European Union; or is it the case that the social development chapter which is being negotiated within the free-trade agreement is deemed sufficient to reassure the unions that Colombia’s human rights—and theirs in particular—will be respected?

My Lords, the Government are certainly not indifferent to any human rights questions arising in any Latin American country, including Colombia which has a long track record of civil violence, including killings. This is perhaps unsurprising when a portion of the country is in the control of the terrorist guerrilla organisation FARC. Most objective observers will note the democratic progress that has been made in Colombia under President Uribe’s leadership and will welcome the growing stabilisation of the country and the decline in killings. However, that is not a reason for us to be anything other than entirely vigilant of what is going on and entirely supportive of those who are trying to combat these killings.

My Lords, the Secretary of State mentioned the withdrawal of Bolivia and Ecuador from previous negotiations. In the light of his earlier comments about how helpful these free-trade agreements should be, what encouragement is being given to those countries to resume negotiations?

My Lords, Ecuador is an observer of the negotiations and does not participate in them. Bolivia is a further step away from being an observer. This is very much a matter for the countries and the Governments concerned. It is not for us to put pressure on anyone who does not want to enter into a free-trade agreement with the European Union. I hope that, upon the satisfactory conclusion of an agreement with Colombia and Peru, the terms are such that it will be open to either Ecuador or Bolivia, or both, to join the agreement in due course.

Will the First Secretary of State accept that on these Benches we strongly support the work of the European Union in negotiating this mutually beneficial trade deal with Peru and Colombia? However, can he explain how the human rights suspension clause will work in practice? Can he give an update on the strong chapter on sustainable development that we all would like to see?

Once the agreement is negotiated, and assuming that it contains a clause pertaining to human rights which all the participant countries can invoke, it is up to either side if they are so minded, having entered—I hope—into a proper discussion about the questions beforehand, in extremis and as a last resort, to suspend the agreement. However, it is open to either side to do that, not just the EU.