OVER recent decades, the image of trade with Colombia has been synonymous in European minds with just one thing: the transit of narcotics such as cocaine, shipped in enormous volumes out of the country and on to the streets of North America and Europe.
I am confident a free trade agreement (FTA) between the European Union and Colombia, ratified last week by the European Parliament, will help to re-shape that reputation – and help Scottish businesses along the way.
Ahead of the vote, I travelled to Columbia to meet senior ministers and representatives of the aquaculture and drinks industries, all of whom were keen to have the opportunity to do more business with Scottish companies.
Scotch whisky incurs a 15 per cent tariff on imports to Columbia. Our firms’ exports to this fast-developing nation are also hindered by a wealth of local and regional taxes and regulations, which effectively block trade by acting as hidden tariff barriers.
Diageo’s commercial director in the country, the reassuringly named Gregorio Gutierrez McAllister, told me that under the FTA, those barriers will be removed over ten years, while steps will also be taken by Columbia to tackle a roaring trade in contraband and fake whisky.
Fish farming is also taking off in Columbia. While it’s too hot to farm salmon, stocks of warm water species such as shrimp, cobia and tilapia can be grown for export to overseas markets. The country is keen not only to sell more stock, but also to learn about best practice in sustainable aquaculture from experts in Scotland, and to do business with Scottish suppliers of fish farming products and services.
All this is great news for Scottish firms, but it’s also good for stability in this troubled state. As Colombia’s vice-president, Angelino Garzon, told me, evidence suggests open countries tend more easily to improve their records on tackling crime without failing to preserve the human rights of their people.
We should welcome that Columbia is trying to build a brighter future, one that offers Scottish firms a stake in any prosperity that this newly minted free trade relationship may help to encourage.
• Struan Stevenson is a Conservative Member of the European Parliament for Scotland.