Don’t let populism sink the FTA

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Don’t let populism sink the FTA

Last Friday, the legislative review subcommittee of the Foreign Affairs, Trade and Unification Committee of the National Assembly rejected a motion to ratify the Korea-EU FTA. The meeting demonstrated the current state of Korean politics. The first chapter of the comic farce was again opened by opposition Democratic Labor Party lawmaker Kang Ki-kab - notorious for his erratic actions, including jumping on the chairman’s desk. Though not a member of the subcommittee, he stormed into the meeting room and forcefully blocked the vote by grabbing the chairman’s hands.

More embarrassment came when ruling Grand National Party legislator Hong Jung-wook abruptly left the room. Later he explained why: “I abstained from voting since I didn’t want to take part in the brawl, though I support the FTA.” Then why did he bother to join the debate or take such action? Was it perhaps because of a need to solidify his image as an “independent” ahead of next year’s general elections? The Democratic Party floor leader even said that he wanted to respect Hong’s courage.

The FTA can still be ratified through the full session of the Foreign Affairs, Trade and Unification Committee. But its chairman, Nam Kyung-pil, had already announced that he will not run in the next elections if lawmakers act violently in the Assembly. That amounts to a declaration that he will leave the crucial FTA ratification up in the air. We are wondering if Nam and Hong will take a hands-off approach to important issues as long as the opposition thwarts them.

The obsession by politicians with image control is perfectly understandable. But what the voters want from them is not image but fierceness in tackling and hammering out the best possible solutions for the country. The National Assembly is not a beauty shop, and careful image control can never produce a respected politician.

This shabby portrait of our lawmakers stands in sharp contrast to the EU parliament. Despite having 27 member countries with different interests and more diverse industries involved in the FTA, the EU parliament passed a bill to ratify the pact in February after reaching a grand consensus through constructive debates. The GNP, however, has thus far failed to form a unified front on the issue, with some members stuck in a populist trap and missing an opportunity to advance the country. If this debacle continues, we may have to break our promise and postpone the date when the FTA is scheduled to go into effect in July. What a shame that would be.
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