Exclusive interview: the outlook for EU-Colombia relations in an increasingly divided world

By Carolina Chaparro Alba

The increasingly assertive behavior of the US administration and of other major powers such as Russia and China,  is posing a challenge to the clout of the EU in the world. While also facing the rise of nationalist forces across the European continent, the EU executive branch is becoming more isolated in its promotion of a consensus-driven approach to internal relations.

Still, the EU efforts to support the peace-building process in Colombia effectively contributed to the finalization of a peace agreement between the Colombian government and the left-wing FARC guerrilla movement. As the unraveling of the global order is driving the EU to strengthen its relations with like-minded countries, we reached out to Sergio Jaramillo Caro (Colombia’s Representative to the EU and Belgium and former Colombian High Commissioner for Peace) to hear his insights on the current status of EU-Colombian relations, the EU’s role in the peace-building process and the potential future developments in EU – Colombia  trade relations.

Check out the full interview below to find out what is next for the EU-Colombia partnership:

VoteWatch Europe: First of all, we would like to ask you what are the main priorities of your mandate?

Representative Caro: Well, I will say that my priorities with respect to the EU have been two very related ones. On the one hand, guaranteeing the very strong support that the EU has shown for the Peace Process and, on the other hand, strengthening Colombia’s commercial relations with Europe, and I say they are very related because in a sense they are one.

Informally, we talk in the embassy about the need to come up with the right marriage between the peace agreement we reached with the FARC and the free trade agreement that we have with the EU, because in the end what the peace agreement does is create an opportunity to do things we wouldn’t do otherwise.

If you really want to pacify Colombia, you need to create viable economies in the periphery that suffered the conflict and that is still to this day suffering the effects of illegal economies; mostly but not only the coca economy. You can only really combat that by producing formal employment, investing in public goods, integrating all those regions; this vast periphery, into the life of the country.

So, there is a very big role there to be played by trade and we have been working both in the EU and Belgium in various schemes to create incentives for European businesses to buy from these regions, coca for example, and even to invest in them. Those have been my priorities.

VoteWatch Europe: You were one of the main leaders who conducted peace negotiations with the FARC, what is your opinion about the role played by the EU during this process?

Representative Caro: The EU has been, without question, Colombia’s strongest partner in this challenging post-conflict or peace building phase. We were very careful throughout the peace process in the management of the international community because we thought we should have what I call a needs-based approach. To the extent that there was a real need in this process for an international actor to get involved, then we would have called them, but we would not call on the international community per se without knowing what for.

So, we first called on the Cubans and the Norwegians to help us with the secret phase of the talks. When the talks became public, we engaged two more countries of the region because we wanted the peace process to be really nested and embedded in the region to have the support of Latin America. We therefore engaged Chile and Venezuela, two very different countries, to accompany the process and to tell other countries in the region with which they have strong relations, what was going on Havana, whilst the main role was being played by Cuba and Norway in Havana.

Once the agreement was reached, we moved into the third phase, the peace building phase, or post-conflict phase (I myself quite like the word ‘post-conflict’), where we needed to engage many others but especially the EU. So, with a lot of vision, Federica Mogherini, about six months before negotiations ended, named Eamon Gilmore, a former minister of foreign affairs of Ireland, as the EU special envoy to the peace process, to prepare precisely the EU support to this peace building phase.

That was an extremely intelligent and important move for many reasons. First of all, it helped to organize many things in a much more orderly fashion. Instead of having various EU countries sending envoys and having the usual problems we have with coordination and of not always shared interest, we had one EU envoy that was the voice of Europe and one extremely intelligent, committed and sagacious envoy that has been Eamon Gilmore. Secondly, we could try to coordinate the EU support to the peace agreement in a much more strategic way, and that has been done through the special envoy Eamon Gilmore, through the delegation in Bogota and Patricia the ambassador, and through our direct contact with DEVCO in Brussels, especially with commissioner Mimica, with DG Stefano Manservisi, and with Jolita who is in charge of Latin America. I, myself consider this support of the EU; not just of the Commission but of all the institutions including Parliament, to be the biggest international guarantee for the sustainability of the peace process.

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In the case of the European Parliament, it is very interesting if you look at where we were ten years ago. There was a strong criticism of the government of the former president Uribe from the left of the Parliament and support from the right. What happened because of the peace process is that the whole political spectrum in the European Parliament from the hard left to the right decided unanimously that it was in favor of the peace agreement and the peace process. So, we had something that is very rare, which is the unanimous support across the European Parliament for the peace process.

By the way, the same thing happened at the EU Council and the Security Council. Practically the only issue that the Security Council, in the past three years, has been able to agree and to vote unanimously on, is the support for the peace agreement and for the reunification to Colombia. That kind of political support across the board is hugely important, not just for the peace process but for Colombia itself, and the next government would be very foolish to throw it away.

VoteWatch Europe: Given that the Colombian government is now starting to negotiate with the ELN as it did with the FARC, do you think the EU will continue its support for the consolidation of the process with the ELN as they did with the FARC?

Representative Caro: With the ELN, I should expect the EU to support that process certainly, but we also need to be careful and make sure that progress is made. I think at the moment the most important thing is to guarantee, as I think it is guaranteed, the very strong and broad support for the peace agreement with the FARC, and in that context, see how much process can be made with the ELN.

VoteWatch Europe: The EU has already invested a great amount of money in the peacebuilding process, in Colombia, on many levels. Once the peace building process is finalized, how do you think the EU contributions to your country’s development would look like? Do you think the European investments should target specific areas? If yes, which ones?

Representative Caro: Absolutely, I think that what you find in Colombia is a country full of asymmetries. You have a fairly developed or a really quite developed core where 75%, 80% of the population lives, which is the cities and let’s call it the traditional, rural areas. And then you have this vast sort of territory, that were the ones that suffered the conflict and where nobody has made serious investments in decades and where there are huge opportunities for agriculture on a scale that is not possible in most countries. The FMO brand said that Colombia was, of all countries in the world, the 7th with the largest agricultural potential and most of that potential, if not all, is in these regions.

Then you have the whole world of tourism, where we are not doing enough. Tourism has, over the last six or seven years, tripled in Colombia and is increasing each year by a very large percentage, but we need in many areas of the country a much better infrastructure to support that new demand. I should think there are few countries in the world where demand is rising so quickly and to which so much attention is being paid. In the list of places to go according to the New York Times in 2008 Colombia was number two, but we need to improve our infrastructure. Not just in terms of hotels and so forth, which, obviously exist and there are many which are very good, although we need more of them too.

But especially in developing the kind of tourism infrastructure of countries like France or Spain or Belgium, where this includes not just as I said, hotels, but whole circuits of how people should move around and with the adequate logistical support to be able to spend a good weekend in various parts of the country. So, I think there are really ample opportunities for European investment which should bring serious rewards.

VoteWatch Europe: Based on the latest Colombian government’s report, your country’s export and import represent only 0,4% of the total EU commercial transactions. In your opinion, should the EU negotiate a new agreement with Colombia that could improve the bilateral trade relations?

Representative Caro: No, I think what we need to do is to make more of what we already have. The truth is that we were unlucky because the signing of the trade agreement coincided with a very serious drop in oil prices and in commodity prices, which have been reflected in lower levels of trade over the last five years than we would have wished. Still, as always you have to differentiate and even though trade did not increase to the extent we wished, it is now much more diversified and again there are new opportunities.

It also has to be said that very often you run against the wall of the increasingly demanding conditions that the Commission sets on all kinds of agricultural products which make their entry into the EU very difficult, and where in some cases what we would wish for is to have greater clarity. For example, there is a number of very interesting tropical fruits which are in demand in Europe, and which are perfect products to cultivate in some of these areas that we were talking about, but they are running into the wall of frankly bizarre EU restrictions like restrictions on new agricultural products that were not consumed before 1997 for example, which strikes one as really very arbitrary.

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So, we also need to work on those, and, especially in this day and age where the very idea of free trade and multilateralism is facing the strongest opposition since the war, we need to have a frank discussion between the EU and producer countries like Colombia to make sure that the EU really opens its doors to trade. We need to achieve an understanding that there are certain requirements and health requirements which we all share, but that there are not more obstacles than necessary to free trade between Colombia or Latin America in general and the EU.

VoteWatch Europe: Although the current diplomatic relations between Colombia and the EU are stable, do you forecast any impact of Brexit on the Colombia-EU relations?

Representative Caro: Well, frankly I think that Brexit is a very bad thing for everyone, and not just for the UK; I think it’s a very bad thing for Europe. I think the UK plays a huge role in Europe, and it will be much missed. The UK has been a very close partner of Colombia and was extremely supportive of the peace process. Everything is going to become much more difficult.

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For example, Colombia is the world’s second largest producer of cut flowers. If you look at the figures of how many cut flowers are imported by the UK from Colombia, you will find it significant but not as high as expected. Why? Because an important percentage of those Colombian cut flowers don’t go into the UK directly from Colombia but through the flower market of the Netherlands. If those flowers now have trouble to get in from the Netherlands into the UK, it’s a very big problem for a product as sensitive as flowers. So, I think Brexit really is a nightmare for us all.


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