South Korea’s ruling party rammed the country’s free-trade agreement with the EU through parliament amid an opposition boycott in a result that now paves the way for the tariff-slashing accord to take effect as early as July.
The approval came in a one-sided late-night vote on Wednesday that was pushed through the National Assembly by the Grand National Party against the opposition’s wishes. EU lawmakers approved the deal earlier this year.
The free-trade agreement brings together increasingly affluent South Korea, Asia’s fourth-largest economy, with the 27-member EU, the world’s largest economic bloc. Trade between the two sides totaled US$92.2 billion last year, a gain of 17 percent from the year before.
A total of 169 National Assembly members were present and 163 voted in favor of the legislation. One lawmaker voted against it, while five abstained. The assembly has 299 members.
“I announce that the free-trade agreement between the Republic of Korea and the European Union has been ratified,” National Assembly Speaker Park Hee-tae said after the vote.
The main opposition Democratic Party boycotted the session in a dispute about providing safeguards for farmers and small retailers, Yonhap news agency reported.
Negotiations toward an agreement began four years ago soon after South Korea and the US concluded negotiations on a free-trade agreement. Despite the later start, Seoul and Brussels stand to see their accord take effect first — a potential development that has worried US businesses who see European rivals potentially gaining an advantage in the South Korean market.
The EU ranks as South Korea’s fourth-largest trading partner behind China, ASEAN and Japan. The US is South Korea’s fifth-largest trading partner.
South Korea and the EU signed their agreement in October of last year and EU lawmakers approved it by a wide margin in February. Both sides have said they want it to take effect in July.
The passage comes as South Korea’s free-trade agreement with the US remains unratified in both countries. US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said last month during a visit to Seoul that the administration of US President Barack Obama is determined to see the agreement ratified this year.
The deal is the biggest for the US since the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 and would bring the country economically closer to South Korea, already a key long-term security ally.
The South Korea-US agreement, negotiated under the administration of former US president George W. Bush, stalled under Obama after his government complained the pact did not adequately address a large deficit in auto trade favoring Seoul.
The two sides reached a revised deal in December that the US said it felt could win congressional approval.