20 years of Bi-regional Summits of EU-Latin america: Is it time for a turning point?
Relations between Europe and Latin America have enjoyed a fluid exchange since the independence of the new republics, when diplomatic relations and more specifically, intensive trade relations were established. However, it was only in the 1970s when the then EEC began to set up a more formal dialogue and relations with the Latin American countries, whose “first meeting” was the San Jose Dialogue in September 1984. At this time, the EEC ministers reaffirmed their support for the peace process in Central America. This interest in the region was reinforced by the entry of Spain and Portugal into the EEC, which gave a new impulse to EEC-Latin America relations. Fifteen years later, in June 1999, the EU and the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean decided to meet for the first time in a bi-regional summit in Rio de Janeiro, marking the institutionalization of dialogue and cooperation. Today, 20 years after this landmark summit, the dialogue and cooperation between the two regions has fallen into an impasse. The lack of a concrete strategy from the EU towards the region, problems of integration in Latin America and the issue of Venezuela have frozen the relations, and as a result, the summit scheduled for 2017 was canceled. Is there an alternative to re-launch the bi-regional relations? The Joint Communication from the European Commission and the High Representative, launched on April 17th, try to reinforce the relation that reveals complex. Thus, 2019 will be a decisive year to see if the bi-regional summit will take place and relaunch the dialogue under more solid premises.
Since the first summit, in 1999 there has been a big shift between the two regions. Since the beginning of this century, Latin America has increased its weight at international level and has inclined towards its side the balance in political-economical terms. The current EU-Latin America framework, transformed from EU-LAC to EU-CELAC in 2013, is structured in 3 dimensions: political dialogue, global governance and technical cooperation. In the first two dimensions, although there are several common points of view, they have not moved from political declarations to concrete actions. However, significant results have been achieved in sectorial cooperation. The last EU-CELAC Summit, held in Brussels in June 2015, reached a peak of understanding and cooperation. It was believed that, with the adoption of the Political Declaration, stating the objectives of both blocs and the Action Plan, would lead to deepen cooperation in several fields.
The III EU-CELAC Summit, planned for October 2017, wanted to symbolize progress in the so-called strategic alliance between both regions. However, the political juncture in Latin America, with the issue of Venezuela at its heart, came to play a destabilizing role, and most importantly, showed the differences in positions about the issue between the EU and many Latin American countries. This was the last pretext to pause efforts and plans at the bi-regional level that finally cancelled the Summit. This came about in part, because of the problems to articulate a regional integration scheme in the region and common positions over political aspects. However, on the EU side, the failure is mainly due to the lack of an appropriate strategy towards the region and the little understanding from the EU and many of its Member States of the diversity and complexity of the region. The EU inter-regionalist approach towards Latin America, as a way to export its model and the principles that guide its external action, such as promoting free trade, cooperation development and regional integration, have not proved very effective. Nevertheless, this lack of an appropriate approach and the poor results obtained at the bi-regional level contrasts with the progress made at the bilateral level. Today, the EU has two Strategic partnerships with Brazil (2007) and Mexico (2008), the latter of which was upgraded in 2018 to a Global Agreement. In this line, the 2002 Association Agreement with Chile was upgraded to a Comprehensive Agreement last year. More complicated, but not less ambitious, are the EU-MERCOSUR negotiations, whose conclusions are expected this year. All this shows that the EU’s interregional approach and exportation of its model has failed, prioritizing the concrete agreements at bilateral level with key countries in the region.
To relaunch the relations, we need to tackle the challenges behind this relationship. The first is to fill the relation with political content in its first two dimensions: it would mean looking for common positions on global matters and at international organizations. Both regions share common visions about many global topics, but lack of understanding and ambition have stopped them from taking further steps in this regard. The second is a structural challenge, which means abandoning the interregional approach and looking for a more balanced position between the content and the form, such as using a bilateral approach to accomplish political and economic objectives with key actors while reforming the current bi-regional framework. The EU-CELAC setting has proved to be not ideal to conduct the complicated and diverse relations with the region. It is too difficult to articulate these relations with 61 states that have different interests. A new EU-Latin American framework (just the Latin American continental countries) would fit better to discuss and add more political content to a strategic relation that has not moved from political declarations and rhetoric.
The 20th anniversary of the institutionalizations of the EU-LAC relations would be an ideal moment for the EU to rethink how to address the relations with the region. The reform of the form and content of the EU-CELAC relations is imperative in order to arrive to this anniversary with a renovated relation between these two regions that share common values and visions.
Joel Diaz Rodriguez. Researcher. «20 years of bi-regional summits of EU-Latin America: is it time for a turning point?» actualité disponible at www.ceje.ch. Follow at @Joel_DRodri