Free Trade and open markets stimulate economic growth and therefore the creation of wealth and prosperity. It is against this background that the European Union started to negotiate various Free Trade Agreements in 2007, aiming to lower tariffs and non-tariff trade barriers alike. The first one to be concluded was with South Korea – provisionally entering into force in July 2011.
In this context, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom invited a group of six liberal-minded Koreans to Brussels to discuss the current state of the FTA, its achievements so far but also the remaining shortcomings. Over the course of three days, the young professionals had the unique chance to meet officials from various EU institutions but also non-governmental think tanks such as the European Centre for International Political Economy.
On the whole, the EU Free Trade Agreement with South Korea can be described as a success story. As Peter Berz, heading the Unit “Trade relations with the Far East” at the Directorate-General for Trade of the EU Commission, pointed out: Since its entry into force, the agreement has facilitated economic cooperation between the two sides and lead to a considerable increase in trade volume. The main beneficiaries are the consumers who enjoy lower prices of imported goods such as e.g. Korean smartphones or European cars. However, some shortcomings also remain. To the present day, the FTA has not been ratified by all European member states, which is why it can only provisionally be applied so far. Moreover, certain products, especially in the agricultural sector, are excluded from the provisions of the agreement and hence still subject to significant trade barriers and over-regulation.
Needless to say, the general economic state of the European Union has also been debated. While the EU’s single market still serves as a role model for regional economic integration, its weaknesses have been exemplified by the recent economic crisis. In lively debate with the Korean delegation, Hosuk Lee-Makiyama, director at the European Centre for International Political Economy, argued that Europe is more and more losing ground to its North American and East Asian competitors and thus has to apply serious economic reforms to secure current living standards.
Lastly, an open and cooperative economic relationship ultimately presupposes a friendly political relationship. Hence, topics such as the European foreign policy towards the Korean peninsula and political relations in general have also been addressed. In this context, Julian Wilson, head of Division Japan, Korea, Australia, New Zealand of the European External Action Service, pointed out that although Europe is not a member of the current Six-party talks dealing with the North Korean nuclear program, it shares many values and goals with South Korea. Cooperation in the realm of international security and foreign policy can thus be expected to deepen in future, especially with regard to the promotion of human rights and peaceful conflict resolution.
On the whole, the study tour has been a very enriching experience for everybody involved. All of the participants aim to share their insights with the Korean public, e.g. by publishing magazine articles or organizing conferences relating to the discussed topics. This way, liberal ideas and values will continue to thrive in South Korea – building the foundation for deepened cooperation and dialogue with Europe in the future.