Colombia and Peru, frustrated by slow region-to-region free trade talks between the EU and South America’s four Andean countries, have formally asked Brussels to pursue swifter bilateral negotiations with them.
The free-market presidents of Peru and Colombia made the proposal this month, trade officials told Reuters, underscoring their split with Bolivia and Ecuador, whose leftist leaders are more wary of liberalising trade with Europe.
The EU has long favoured negotiating free trade deals on a region-to-region basis as it tries to replicate its multilateral model around the world and to foster bigger, regional markets that are more
attractive to its exporters.
But time is running short as the term of the European Commission, the EU’s executive, is due to end in November 2009.
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe said in a letter to European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso — a copy of which was obtained by Reuters on Monday — that “different visions” within the Andean region had hampered the talks.
Uribe said Colombia was proposing “to advance simultaneously with the negotiation of bilateral trade agreements between each of the Andean countries and the European Union.
“We hope that these negotiations can be finished as quickly as possible, preferably during the first half of 2009,” he said in the letter dated Sept. 9. Peruvian President Alan Garcia sent a similar letter to Barroso, trade officials said.
Tension in the Andes
The four-country Andean Community (CAN) bloc has been riven by tension among its members on issues beyond trade.
Colombian troops this year attacked Colombian FARC rebels based inside Ecuador, leading to the suspension of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Ties remain frosty.
European trade chief Peter Mandelson said in May the bloc might agree to calls from Peru and Colombia for fast-track talks, leaving Ecuador and Bolivia for later.
“The EU is keen to pursue FTA negotiations with the Andean countries,” Mandelson’s spokesman Peter Power said on Monday.
“However if any Andean country is not, at this stage, willing to agree the level of integration required of free trade agreements under World Trade Organisation rules, we would be prepared to continue talks with those countries which are,” he said, adding that long-term Andean integration must not be hurt.
U.S. trade deal
The United States has already negotiated a trade deal with Colombia but it has been blocked by opposition in Congress. A U.S.-Peru trade deal is due to come into force in January.
Exports from the Andean bloc to the EU totalled $11 billion in 2007 — much of them in raw materials and farm goods such as bananas — and more than $8 billion worth of European business went the other way, according to CAN data. Bananas would be a sensitive issue in any fast-track talks.
The EU and Latin American banana exporters have wrangled for decades over the preferential access that Europe gives to former colonies in Africa and the Caribbean.
The prospect of a deal that cuts the EU’s import tariffs could help bring Ecuador — the world’s biggest banana exporter — back to the negotiating table with Brussels.
The EU is also negotiating a regional trade deal with countries in Central America, home to other big banana exporters, meaning Ecuador could find itself facing higher tariffs than its rivals if it stays out of a regional deal.
As well as trade, Brussels is negotiating on political and cooperation with the Andean region, potentially complicating the process if the trade talks go bilateral. (Reuters)