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Today we start the government consultations between the EU and the Republic of Korea on the implementation by Korea of commitments related to trade and sustainable development under the EU-Korea free trade agreement.
The aim is to open a dedicated channel of communication to arrive at an amicable and mutually satisfactory solution to the EU’s concerns, specifically on labour rights.
As European Commissioner for Trade Cecilia Malmström voiced on 17 December: “The Republic of Korea is a valued partner for the EU and the trade agreement between us has produced large economic gains for both sides. But trade is about much more than the exchange of goods and services. It's about upholding standards and values. Under our agreement, both sides made commitments on workers’ rights, but so far the actions taken by the Korean government to implement this part of the deal have not been sufficient. We have a duty to uphold the spirit and letter of our agreements. We look forward to the opportunity to discuss thiese issues further with our Korean partner.”
This is the first time the EU has requested government consulations on a trade and sustainable development chapter of a trade agreement.
The EU has two key longstanding concerns with regard to Korea’s implementation of the commitments on multilateral labour standards and agreements in the chapter on trade and sustainable development, in particular those concerning:
Both issues are closely interrelated and require a number of legislative and administrative reforms on labour in Korea.
The EU-Korea free trade agreement is now in its eighth year of implementation. It is time that both parties made progress on these important commitments. The EU fully supports the commitment and efforts of President Moon to move forward with the ratification and with the necessary legislative and administrative changes to this end.
The European Commission closely monitors the implementation of trade commitments by EU partners and takes actions, as necessary, to ensure that these commitments are respected. This also applies to commitments taken under the trade and sustainable development chapters in EU trade agreements.
The EU-Korea free trade agreement, in place since 2011, was the first of the “new generation” of comprehensive trade agreements that include a trade and sustainable development chapter, with a number of labour and environmental commitments based on multilateral standards and agreements.
The Commission has been raising its concerns with Korea over several years in the framework of bilateral meetings under the EU-Korea free trade agreement. Also, civil society has been raising these concerns to both parties in the context of regular work of the Domestic Advisory Groups and the Civil Society Forum established under the EU-Korea free trade agreement. In 2017, both the European Parliament in its Resolution and the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) in its Opinion highlighted these areas as unsatisfactory.
The EU appreciates the engagement of the current Korean government in these matters and in bilateral dialogue with the EU. President Moon has confirmed that he is working on the implementation of his campaign pledges set out in his "100 priority tasks" of July 2017 that includes as priority tasks "building the society where the labour is respected" and a "pursuit of the ratification of the ILO's core conventions".
In particular, the EU welcomes the recent reinstallation of a tripartite process by the Korean government that seeks the agreement of workers and employers representatives (social partners) on the legislative reforms necessary for the outstanding ratification of the four ILO Conventions.
This positive step could help Korea to live up to its commitments under the trade agreement with the EU. Nevertheless, further steps are required, leading to concrete improvements in the Korean regulatory environment and practice and to the ratification of the 4 fundamental ILO Conventions.
As the EU’s concerns have not been satisfactorily addressed yet, the EU decided to step up the engagement with the Korean authorities to seek a mutually satisfactory solution. The EU has therefore requested governmental consultations with Korea on 17 December 2018 [link to the request for consultations].
What do the government consultations under trade and sustainable chapter of the EU Korea trade agreement actually entail? What are the next steps and who is involved?
The government consultations under Article 13.14 of EU-Korea free trade agreement are a way of formally stepping up the engagement between two parties on any matter of mutual interest after the discussions on such a matter in the framework of regular committees under the EU-Korea free trade agreement has not yielded a mutually satisfactory resolution. Requesting government consultations is a step where a party formally indicates its issues and channels the engagement into a formal process of finding a mutually satisfactory solution.
If the matter raised has not been satisfactorily addressed through the government consultations, a party can refer it to an independent Panel of Experts (to be convened under the FTA). This step can be made at the earliest 90 days after requesting the government consultations. Such a Panel would examine the matter and present to the Parties its report with recommendations and advice on the matter.
The EU is a firm believer in multilateralism and is of the opinion that such a resolution should be in line with recommendations or advice of the ILO.
For more information
Link to the request for consultations [LINK]
 Convention 87 - Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention, Convention 98 - Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention, Convention 29 - Forced Labour Convention, and Convention 105 - Abolition of Forced Labour Convention.
 European Parliament Resolution of 18 May 2017 on the implementation of the Free Trade Agreement between the European Union and the Republic of Korea (2015/2059/INI), paragraph 5 and European Economic and Social Committee opinion of 17 October 2017 on EU-Korea Free Trade Agreement - Trade and Sustainable Development Chapter (REX/479-EESC-2017-2894), paragraph 6.