Outside Players in Latin America (III): Relations with the European Union (ARI)

Outside Players in Latin America (III): Relations with the European Union (ARI)

Theme: The future of relations between the European Union and Latin America[1] is full of question marks given the ambiguity on the part of almost all the players involved.

Summary: Relations between the European Union and Latin America are not at their best. The Vienna Summit has left a feeling that a major failure was averted, one that could have jeopardised the future of the system. Although the modest goals set out before the meeting were achieved, it was not possible to find the most adequate ways or mechanisms to break out of the current impasse (see Günther Maihold, ‘The Vienna Summit between Latin America/The Caribbean and the EU: The Relative Success of a Meeting with Low Expectations’, ARI 59/2006, Elcano Royal Institute,

The next summit between Latin America, the Caribbean and the European Union (EU) will be held in May 2008 in Lima, Peru. It is not yet clear what the main goals will be, beyond dealing with problems of social cohesion. In the specific case we are addressing here, that of relations between the two geographic blocs, the underlying problem is not one of flawed negotiations, or intransigence. Rather, it is a lack of definition on the part of the players involved. They are unable to articulate in a consistent and sustained (not just day-to-day) way what it is they expect from the counterparts with which they in theory wish to maintain relations. Difficulties in the trans-Atlantic relationship also materialise in the obstacles blocking the progress towards a partnership treaty between the EU and Mercosur. Although the negotiations are not lagging as far behind as the previous set of talks ?between the EU and the Andean Community of Nations? they have run into serious problems because of Bolivia’s demands that its special circumstances be taken into account. The EU agreed to address this because of the significant uncertainty stemming from the economic and social situation in that Andean country and the weight of its indigenous peoples within the population. Central America might be the best example of successful negotiations with the EU, but concrete results are still far off. The obstacles hindering relations between Europe and Latin America include enlargement of the EU, which in a short span of time has risen from 15 to 27 members, and the crisis triggered by the rejection of the EU constitutional treaty. Meanwhile, the rise of nationalist populism has introduced a divisive wedge and contradictions in the Latin American bloc, and this is hampering relations and negotiations with the EU.

Analysis: The relations between the EU and Latin America, and therefore the negotiations between them, have always been characterised by asymmetry between the two sides and the widespread feeling, shared by all those involved, that the EU is somehow superior politically and economically to Latin America. This is seen in the so-called ‘democratic clause’ in the Third Generation accords signed by Latin America and the EU as the countries of the former expanded their processes of returning to democracy in the last two decades of the 20th century. The clause was added with just one side in mind, not both, and mainly because of the support that democratic Europe could give to consolidating democracy in Latin America. In some cases, the clause was added to a treaty at the request of the Latin American country involved.

Relations have also been marked not only by a high level of mutual lack of knowledge, but by the strong influence of clich?s and a failure of all those involved to specify what the other side has that interests them. This means that, to a certain extent, the EU does not really know what it expects from Latin America, nor does the latter know what it expects from the EU. And if the goals are not clear, what can be said about the achievements? This is something that can quickly transpose itself onto the summits between Latin America, the Caribbean and the EU. They have lost momentum since the first three were held in Rio de Janeiro (1999), Madrid (2002) and Guadalajara, Mexico (2004). According to Stephan Sberro, the EurosociAL program, approved at the Guadalajara Summit with ?30 million in funding to facilitate exchanges on social cohesion among the 58 countries within the summit system, has been the only concrete result that can be attributed to the summits.

The Vienna Summit of 2006, the last of these meetings to be held, saw its goals scaled back for a variety of reasons. This, along with the lack of enthusiasm among many participants should lead us to reflect seriously on the future of these summits and on the true nature of relations between Latin America and the EU. Such a reflection should not ignore the progress and concrete results of a relationship that clearly has room for improvement. Therefore, the main goal of this analysis is to prompt an honest, open discussion that allows for a re-evaluation of a relationship that is necessary and useful for both sides and also serves as a stimulus for its near future.

From this perspective, and looking ahead to the European-Latin American summit in Lima (May 2008), it is important to define better and to assign concrete content and meaning to what has come to be called the ‘great strategic alliance’ between the EU and Latin America. This ‘strategic Alliance’ was defined in a 54-point declaration that came out of the Rio Summit and these points were supposed to bind the two regions. Despite the existence of a theoretical framework, the two sides so far have failed to give substance to what is seen to date as their greatest achievement.

The European Perspective

In Europe’s case, the main clich? when it comes to driving and maintaining the bi-regional relationship is the shared membership in western culture. In the words of Alain Rouqui?, Latin America is the edge of the West, but the West nonetheless. This common and undeniable belonging to the Western world is the basis of the movement that has created the ideal framework for consolidating a grand, strategic, bi-regional alliance, one that would strengthen the possibilities of both sides and enhance synergies in the multilateral framework. Although from the European perspective this is sound reasoning, from the other side some have started to question Latin America’s links with the West. The emergence of indigenous movements that are pushing for a clear return to the past is the main argument for denying the Western and European component of the cultures of Latin America.

But this point of departure for deepening the bi-regional relationship is overshadowed by another of the commonly cited factors that influence these ties: Latin America is part of the US sphere of influence and therefore the prospects of autonomous European action in the region are limited. So, this argument goes on to say, the bi-regional relationship should centre basically on the most strictly political issues. Somehow the weight of the US in Latin America acts as a barrier that makes it hard to enhance relations that on the surface seek to benefit both Europe and Latin America. To all of this should be added the somewhat biased argument that each time Europe gets closer to the US with regard to problems in the region, it drifts further away from Latin America. And this would apply to a larger extent to Spain.

This rather widespread belief in US hegemony goes a long way towards explaining the frequent hesitations and contradictions in European policy towards Latin America, an issue that clearly shows in the promotion of democracy and the support for democratic governments. Here, there are constant concessions to that which is politically correct. They are driven by the empathy that much of European public opinion feels towards some of Latin America’s political and social movements (such as the fight against dictatorships and in favour of human rights, but also in support of indigenous rights, leftist guerrillas, etc). Meanwhile, the idea of US dominance forces European politicians to tread very carefully when it comes to multilateralism and limits one of the few appealing things about the grand strategic alliance that Europe and Latin America are trying to promote.

To make matters even worse, in recent years there has been a growing insistence that Europe’s self-proclaimed interest in Latin America is losing intensity. For some observers this is a process that runs parallel to that of the US ignoring Latin America since the 11 September 2001 terror attacks, although others attribute it directly to EU enlargement, saying the 12 new members of the bloc are simply not interested in Latin America. It is true that to some extent the new members are less concerned about Latin America than most of the other 15. But this explanation of a lack of interest should not rest only on the new EU members. It is increasingly common to hear certain European media and politicians say that the EU has too much on its plate, such as Asia ?including China and India? and Africa ?both the Maghreb region and the Sub-Saharan part of the continent?. It is just a short distance from this argument to the black-and-white conclusion that if Latin America is not interested in the relationship, that’s Latin America’s problem.

This waning attention involves some countries which were once among those most engaged with Latin America, such as Sweden. In August 2007 the centre-right government in Sweden presented a plan to reduce from 70 to 33 the number of countries to which it gives bilateral aid. Most of those excluded are in Asia and Latin America. Sweden opted to concentrate its bilateral aid in the next few years in certain African countries and especially on issues of peace, security, democracy and human rights. It established three categories of cooperation: over the long term, countries in conflict or trying to recover from one, and Eastern Europe. The first group includes Bolivia, along with Ethiopia, Kenya and Rwanda. The second category features Colombia, Guatemala, Liberia, Somalia, Palestine, Iraq and Sierra Leone. Among the newly excluded countries are Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Peru and Cuba, which in 2006 received US$35.6 million, US$20.1 million, US$4.6 million, US$4.3 million and US$1 million in bilateral aid, respectively, according to the Directorate for International Development Aid. The Social Democratic opposition complained that more aid is being given to Europe than to Asia, ‘where nearly half of the world’s poor people live’. All this is happening in a context in which countries decide to give priority to fighting poverty but eliminate recipients such as Nicaragua, El Salvador and Haiti and retain others such as Serbia and Turkey. As can be expected, the countries affected by these decisions, starting with Nicaragua, have protested about the measure but failed to suggest an alternative.

With European interest in Latin America on the decline, doubts arise as to which EU nations really do care about strengthening relations between the two sides. It is obvious that Spain and Portugal as members of the Iberoamerican Community of Nations do play a leading role in EU entities involved in this issue, although its role could be even more prominent. What is more, many Latin American analysts say that European institutions will not make any decision regarding Latin America without Spain’s approval. Along with the Iberian nations there is another group of countries, which includes Germany, the UK, France and Italy which have undeniable interests of all kinds (economic, political, cultural, family-related, historical, etc), which under certain circumstances could be mobilised adequately in the face of some of Latin America’s demands. But the lack of an efficient and effective Latin American lobby in Brussels and the main European capitals makes it very difficult for Europe to respond positively to Latin America. Then there is the fact that in general the countries and governments of Latin America tend to act individually, even in Brussels. And this undermines some of what they are pressing EU bodies for.

Europe lacks a valid policy for Latin America as a whole, and its member countries have undergone a ‘nationalization’ of policy, under which they pursue their own interests. Thus, bilateral policies are favoured with those countries that are more aligned with the different European diplomatic drives in terms of economic, political, historical, cultural and migratory factors, among others. The UK, for instance, is closer to Colombia than other European governments are. Cooperation in different areas varies from one country to the next, although it is totally non-existent in many EU nations.

The Latin American Perspective

The lack of clarity in the goals and definition of such a complex relationship also affects Latin America and its vision of Europe, or lack thereof. In general, neither the governments nor the different societies of Latin America know what they want or what to expect from the EU, aside from their legitimate and oft-repeated complaints about the bloc’s Common Agricultural Policy and demands that the EU open up its markets for Latin American agricultural and livestock products. So far Latin American governments, producers and business leaders have been unable to coordinate public-awareness campaigns with European consumer groups or associations that favour free trade and an easing of measures that protect livestock products, an idea that would allow generalised benefits. The persistence of old demands against the Common Agricultural Policy explains the tendency to confuse agreements with the EU with free-trade treaties.

This is seen, for instance, in a paper by Rodolfo Aguirre Reveles and Manuel P?rez Rocha (The EU-Mexico Free Trade Agreement Seven Years On: <A Warning to the Global South, Transnational Institute [TNI], Amsterdam, June 2007). These authors argue: ‘Seven years on, though, the impact of the EU-Mexico FTA is clear. Instead of the promised economic and social benefits, the treaty has left the Mexican state unable to implement policies to promote local small and medium size companies. Mexico’s finance sector is now at the mercy of EU capital, while across various economic sectors the FTA has worked to the benefit of European transnational corporations and to the detriment of Mexican industries. The Mexican example should serve as a warning to other countries in the global South… Where reciprocal trade and investment agreements are made between highly unequal economic actors, these damage national and local economic development and benefit only a handful of transnational corporations’.

Latin America’s answers vary greatly. They range from citing the need to increase aid and cooperation (generally, the term ‘among equals’ is added to dispel any notion of Eurocentric domination) to technical assistance, but not much else, and even complaints about the dangers of European capitalism. The ‘not much else’ tends to include so-called ‘political dialogue’, a necessary ingredient for highlighting negotiations underway. In general, the themes of the agreements tend to centre on certain single-way regulars (except in economic and trade issues) such as consolidating the rule of law and institutional support for strengthening democracy, economic cooperation, (free trade, support for small- and medium-size businesses), customs cooperation, intellectual property rights and economic competition), the fight against inequality and poverty and in favour of social development, and scientific, technical, educational and cultural cooperation. However, on neither side is there even the minimum conceptual clarity to allow progress in this dialogue, not to mention concrete progress in the building of that mythical ‘strategic bi-regional alliance’ spoken of so often at the summits.

This lack of clarity is frequently seen in senior Latin American officials. To quote just one example, at the last meeting of the Biarritz Forum, held in Santiago, Chile on 8-9 October, 2007, there was a discussion on relations between the EU and Latin America. The Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Taiana began his speech by alluding directly to the conflict between his country and the UK over the Falkland Islands. In doing so, Taiana not only sent ambiguous signals about what his country expects from dialogue with the EU, but also made the bi-regional relationship, with all it potential, contingent on overcoming a conflict that should be resolved through other channels and in which the EU as a whole has no choice but to back the UK’s position. This lack of perspective in Argentine diplomacy with regard to the Falklands led Argentina at the time of the conflict to fail to understand that the US, as a member of NATO, would support the UK after the Argentine invasion of the South Atlantic archipelago in 1992, rather than remain neutral, as predicted by the Argentine Foreign Ministry.


The lack of symmetry has also made its way to the quality of the dialogue. Even though Europe has significant limitations when it comes to devising a common foreign policy ?a problem accentuated by the failure of the process to draft an EU constitution and distortions introduced by enlargement from 15 to 27 members?, at least on the surface the EU speaks with one voice. Thus, it is the European Commission, through its commissioners and officials, which expresses the European point of view at summits with Latin America and the Caribbean. But Latin America has as many voices as participating governments, and each expresses itself according to its own interests, even if these go against shared positions. This happened with the Bolivian position at the outset of negotiations between the Andean Community of Nations and the EU. Had the European negotiators adopted a more rigid position, Bolivia’s intransigence would have derailed the negotiations, which were already saddled with problems and difficulties. In this way it is at the very least difficult to advance the bi-regional dialogue.

Evidence of this was seen clearly at the Vienna Summit, which revealed the growing contradictions that run through the region and divide the governments of Latin America. The increasingly confrontational attitude of the government of the Venezuelan President Hugo Ch?vez not only weakens the prospects for a common Latin American position, but also make it harder for the region to engage in dialogue with Europe. Thanks to support from Bolivia, Cuba and Nicaragua (and from Ecuador, although more qualified), Venezuela’s position in these forums has been strengthened. Therefore, it is legitimate to ask how Venezuela will behave in Lima and the direction it wants to give to relations between Latin America and the EU. In light of recent comments from Ch?vez, there is not a lot of reason for optimism, despite the relativism with which the EU has judged the Bolivian position in the negotiations with the Andean Community of Nations.

Asymmetry also emerges in the nature of negotiations and the goals set for dialogue. The EU has traditionally believed that what is good for it must be good for everyone else. This explains Europe’s persistent interest in negotiating not with individual countries but in processes of regional or sub-regional integration, such as Mercosur, the Andean Community of Nations or Central America. However, and this is one of the great paradoxes of all this process, the only two agreements on economic partnership and political cooperation the EU has reached in Latin America were with Mexico (2000) and Chile (2002). Then there is a strategic partnership agreement reached recently by the EU and Brazil, which to some extent confirms the failure of the negotiations between the EU and Mercosur and of Europe’s regional or sub-regional strategy. Those talks are increasingly up in the air because of the negative role that Venezuela might play if it confirms it is joining Mercosur. However, for now, there is no sign that the EU is going to change its negotiating strategy and place a higher priority on bilateral accords rather than regional ones.

In the next few months it will be interesting to observe the relations between the EU and the various countries of the EU in light of its enhanced relations with Brazil. Will nations such as Argentina demand similar treatment, or will they settle for watching how negotiations with Mercosur remain paralysed. What will happen with the Andean Community of Nations and its member countries, especially in the cases of Peru and Colombia? How will EU institutions respond to potential new calls from Latin America for a strategic partnership? Will Latin American countries show flexibility in their positions in order to facilitate bilateral dialogue such as that cited in the case of some Andean countries, following the model of what was achieved with Chile and Mexico, or will they stick with a policy which, after so many years, has proved to be unproductive?

If the phenomena we have described here occur in all areas of relations between the EU and Latin America, then what can be expected on the issue of ‘social cohesion’, the main theme of the Lima Summit? It is evident that this will carry with it the same general limitations, beginning with the almost total lack of symmetry between the two sides involved. In fact, the only point on which there is symmetry is the lack of clarity in what each side expects from the other. To this should be added the experience gained at the Iberoamerican Summit in Santiago, Chile, where Chavez rejected the concept of social cohesion.

Conclusions: So far, relations between the EU and Latin America have been dominated by clich?s and the omnipresence of voluntarism and good intentions. Summits that began late last century tried to give answers to a world that is different from the current one, and with Latin American and European realities that are quite different from today’s realities. Therefore, what is needed is a process that allows a thorough re-evaluation and redefinition of the nature of the relationship and goals that might actually be achieved. It is not a matter of entering into discussions on general themes and issuing declarations of good intentions, but rather trying to move forward on those issues that are sensitive for both sides and should allow for the consolidation of a relationship that is important to both.

For years, the EU’s negotiations with Mercosur were subordinate to the progress of talks in the Doha Round under the auspices of the World Trade Organisation. But it is clear that if the idea is to advance the process, a different answer is needed. While on the European side the broad lines of dialogue and its goals are somewhat more clear, this is not the case for Latin America. For this reason it is not uncommon to hear European officials say that it is up to Latin America to demonstrate clearly that it wants to move forward in the bi-regional relationship. While this is true, at the same time it would be helpful for EU institutions to clarify their positions as well.

Carlos Malamud
Senior Analyst on Latin America, Elcano Royal Institute

[1] The previous documents in this series are the working papers ‘Outside Players in Latin America (I): China’, by Carlos Malamud, and ‘Outside Players in Latin America (II): Iran’, by Carlos Malamud and Carlota García Encina.