As Colombia negotiates peace, so the United Kingdom negotiates its withdrawal from the European Union: both countries on the edge of huge possible change, both dealing with legal and popular opposition to those changes.
In early November, Juan Manuel Santos met with British Prime Minister Theresa May in London to discuss Colombia-UK relations and the prospect of new trade agreements between the two countries. The two leaders talked of strengthening commercial ties, with Santos suggesting a free trade deal for when the UK leaves the EU.
Santos highlighted the “huge opportunity for British business” in Colombia and the rest of the Pacific Alliance trade block – Chile, Peru and Mexico – the eighth largest economy in the world. Reciprocally, May was keen for Colombia to view the UK as a centre for finance, innovation, research and development.
Parallels and Colombia-UK relations
The two countries are both in something of a transition phase, with political change expected in 2017. After the FARC peace deal was expected to be approved by the Colombian people in October, so too was Brexit in line for realisation by March 2017. Both processes experienced recent setbacks. The Colombian people narrowly rejected the peace deal in the October referendum, and the High Court recently ruled that parliament must vote on whether the UK can leave the EU. However, both governments expect that peace and Brexit will ultimately prevail.
While the two political processes are of course very different in nature, there are parallels between the situations in which Colombia and the UK find themselves. Change appears to be imminent. It seems both governments believe that a post-conflict Colombia can benefit from a post-Brexit UK, and vice versa. Aligning the two scenarios is hoped to bring shared opportunities and mutual benefits.
A focus on natural resources
Historically, Colombia and the United Kingdom have co-operated closely via bilateral trade, but also intelligence sharing and law enforcement. Now, with economic growth and stability the goal, new engagements look set to focus upon investment, notably in the natural resources sector – both non-renewable and renewable.
A five-year agreement has been laid out for the oil and gas sectors, whereby a strategic partnership will advance Colombia’s offshore hydrocarbon exploitation. As part of this, Barranquilla and the oil producing Scottish city of Aberdeen will be linked to share best practices and improve the UK’s supply chain. There are also planned investments in mining.
These measures will boost Colombia’s status in the energy world, although it is apparent that there is great potential to work on preserving and regenerating the environment, while sustainably making use of the country’s renewable resources. This fact has not been overlooked by Santos. Indeed, he announced, “We’re also building on our active co–operation to preserve the environment for future generations. […] In another equally ambitious initiative, Colombia and the UK have agreed to co-fund a new joint scientific quest to discover large areas of unexplored ecosystems, inaccessible for decades because of the armed conflict in Colombia.” In addition to gathering new scientific knowledge, the governments see a niche in developing new medicines and cosmetics with materials sourced from these remote parts of the Amazon.
A frontrunner in environmental diplomacy?
Moving forward, Colombia’s abundance of different natural resources presents several policy options. As one of the world’s most biodiverse countries, there is an opportunity to promote environmental diplomacy in this new phase of bilateral relations with the UK. Incorporating ecological values into post-conflict development would represent a significant achievement. Whether the emphasis will be on the more environmentally friendly policies, or extractive industries, remains to be seen. A balancing act between the two may be the most feasible in the near future.
By Joseph Price