The Business Year

Close this search box.
Maria Antonia van Gool

COLOMBIA - Diplomacy

More Than Trade

Ambassador and Head of Delegation in Colombia, EU


Maria Antonia van Gool holds a degree in Political Science with a specialization in Community Law and International Economic Relations. In the past she held diplomatic posts in Bogotá, Abidjan (Ivory Coast), Lagos (Nigeria), and The Hague (The Netherlands) and was Ambassador of the Netherlands in Bolivia, Kenya, Suriname, to the United Nations Program for Environment (UNEP), and in Romania. She has been Ambassador of the European Union Delegation in Colombia since late 2011.

"We are very active and have a strategy that is compulsorily shared by all our member states."

What is the current state of relations between the EU and the Andean Community, particularly Colombia and Ecuador?

The relationship has changed over the years. When I came here about 30 years ago, Colombia had mainly a relationship of development cooperation with most EU countries. In the 1990s, the EU opened a delegation in Colombia that was almost exclusively focused on development cooperation. Gradually, the competencies of the EU have been broadened and relations with Colombia diversified. With the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009, the role of the EU Delegations has been further expanded. Today our main tasks, apart from cooperation, are also political and trade relations. In the meantime, traditional development cooperation is shifting to other types of cooperation, better adapted to the interests of middle-income countries such as Colombia. By 2020 development cooperation will be phasing out, and cooperation in science and technology, higher education, trade, and others will have been strengthened. Colombia is already an upper middle-income country that itself provides cooperation to other countries. Our task now is to evolve in our relationship and transmit the values in the EU’s main areas of competence, particularly in foreign relations and security policy. Thanks to our trade agreement, our relationship is also evolving into a bilateral relationship between equal partners, where we enjoy the same rights and are bound by the same obligations. Previously, Colombia had unilateral access to the EU market, where the EU defined the preferential access conditions for which Colombia had to comply with certain conditions. Our trade agreement is a multi-party agreement that covers both Colombia and Peru. As for Ecuador, it stepped out of negotiations for reasons of internal politics. Its government has already expressed, however, the wish to restart the negotiations process. Overall, our relationships with Latin American countries are very good. In some third countries, the EU member states are more prominent than in others as they are historically and culturally more related, such as Portugal, Spain, and Italy. Nowadays, we see that countries like Poland, Austria, Finland, the Czech Republic, and others also want to have a foothold in Colombia and become more active. That is a very positive development, and it also diversifies relations within the EU.

How significant is the Erasmus Mundi program?

Erasmus Mundi covers countries outside of the EU. It is quite specific in that it enhances exchange between students. Also, a number of European countries, such as France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain, have their own bilateral scholarship programs. Beyond that, there are a large number of regional programs as well, both in the Andean Community and in Latin America as a whole. Many European and Latin American universities in Colombia develop programs together, covering various areas: innovation, research, and teaching. There is much inter-university cooperation, far more than we are even aware of, considering many programs are organized without the EU Delegation’s involvement or assistance. Many universities in Europe find their way whilst looking for funding. Colombia is involved in many programs both in fundamental and applied research.

“We are very active and have a strategy that is compulsorily shared by all our member states.”

What is your vision of the future trade relationship between the EU and Colombia, and also the Andean Community overall?

Our trade agreement consists of a multi-party agreement that was meant to be a region-to-region association agreement, therefore including the whole Andean Community; however, Ecuador and Bolivia opted out during the negotiation phase. The final text of the agreement allows for Ecuador and Bolivia to join when they feel ready. Ecuador recently expressed the desire to resume negotiations with the EU. Bolivia has also shown renewed interest. I am convinced that, through such an agreement, our relationship will be strengthened as mentioned before. The aim of the trade agreement is not only to open up our markets, but also to get to know our products and our culture, and to attract investments from Europe to Colombia as well as the other way around. Colombia is a very large country with great potential and there is still a lot still to do in areas where Europe can contribute, such as infrastructure development. Our trade agreement is different from normal free trade agreements (FTAs) in that it includes an essential clause dealing with the respect of human rights, as well as clear objectives regarding labor rights and sustainable development. These commitments are very important for the EU, and we are very strict requesting our own companies to respect them when they invest abroad. We expect that through our commercial exchanges there will be a kind of positive “contamination effect” resulting from these investments. In order to ensure an effective monitoring of these commitments, the necessary mechanisms will be established within the first year of the agreement’s implementation, including a sub-committee with government representatives from both sides and a public forum for the participation of civil society.

What do you think are the particularities of the Colombian market and the Andean Community in general in terms of attracting foreign investment?

Political differences exist, as we know; furthermore, legislation in Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Colombia is different. Colombia has a trade-oriented policy and business-friendly environment, having signed trade agreements with a large number of countries. It is definitely looking beyond its borders and also beyond its traditional partners, namely the US and the EU. Colombians are enthusiastic, disciplined, and highly educated. One of the main challenges for Colombia to compete in a globalized world is modernizing its infrastructure, not just in terms of roads, trains, ports, and airports, but also in regard to logistics: storage facilities and equipment, and cold storage for goods. For services there seems to be less of a problem. Tourism may be hampered by difficulties in transport. Overall, I think both have a lot of potential to attract investment and intensify the relationship. Another challenge is language; people need to be bilingual, or even trilingual. I often remind young people of the option of not necessarily learning English, but possibly to consider a less straightforward choice for languages like Hungarian or Polish, because that way they would have a considerable competitive advantage and create more of a niche for employment for themselves.

What role is the EU taking in promoting the defense and respect of human rights in Colombia, be it labor rights, minority rights, or women’s rights?

We are very active and have a strategy that is compulsorily shared by all our member states. We have regular meetings with government and civil society, and participate in different platforms that they organize. The Colombians are very open to discussing human rights, especially under the current government. They discuss the topic openly and address the issues where they are still lagging behind. They openly share their results, both their successes and their failures. We have attended a number of regional mesas, or workshops, where various civil society organizations and public institutions participate, as far as one can within the existing security environment. This is all very encouraging, but it is important that we continue talking openly about it and promote it. The respect of human rights is one of the EU’s “export products.” It is something we want and need to promote, and that we strongly believe in. It is hard for some governments to process and deal with the many cases of human rights abuse that occur. It can be hard to investigate each case effectively, and it can be difficult politically, financially, and also logistically, especially in the tense and volatile security environment that Colombia faces. There can also be vested interests that you have to deal with, be it national or regional, economic, or political.

A new visa registration system has been created that will affect Colombians traveling to the EU. What changes will this new system bring?

The new visa registration system establishes a network between all the visa systems in the Schengen area countries: they will now all be linked. There is a logistical impediment that has to be dealt with which is that new visa applicants now have to present themselves at an embassy to register their fingerprints. Previously the system was more flexible, particularly for travellers to Spain. People could obtain their visas through travel agencies. With the new system, however, once you register your fingerprints they remain in the system for five years. The Schengen countries may become more flexible with visas now that the Visa Information System (VIS) is in place; some countries are showing already more flexibility regarding the validity period of the visas they grant. The visa registration system protects the data, so that the fingerprints and names cannot be abused by others; everybody’s travel history can be seen only by the authorized authorities. Frequent and bona fide travellers will be able to travel without major hindrance.

© The Business Year – April 2014



You may also be interested in...


COLOMBIA - Industry

Maria Ximena Arbelaez


CEO, Bosanet


COLOMBIA - Industry

Natalia Jiménez


Regional Manager LATAM, Deel


COLOMBIA - Industry

Albert Douer


Executive Chairman, Ajover Darnel, Colombia

View All interviews



Become a sponsor