Located between the Atlantic and the Pacific, in the last two decades, Latin America has moved closer to Asia, moving away from its traditional relationship with Europe. China is the main market for Brazil and other South American countries, 15 Latin American nations are part of the Belt and Road initiative, and in 2024 there will be a summit between the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and China. Although the US continues to be Latin America’s main trading partner, China already ranks second, while the EU, with just over a tenth of exports and imports, is relegated to fourth position, even behind intra-regional trade.
If Europe wants to be a global player with strategic autonomy, it should take care of its relations beyond its own eastern and southern borders. The recent Summit between the EU, Latin America and the Caribbean, held on July 17 and 18 in Brussels, confirms this. Although it was an important step to resume dialogue at the highest level after eight years of silence, the results are scant. Most notable is the road map, with dates and concrete actions and the promise to hold a next Summit in 2025, probably in Colombia. The long final declaration is interchangeable with other documents and concluded a great controversy about the condemnation (demanded by the European side) of the Russian invasion of Ukraine that is not finally included in the final text. Nor were the eternal negotiations between the EU and Mercosur concluded.
Ursula von der Leyen’s visit to Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Mexico, in June 2023, represents an important step to reactivate the relationship with Latin America. But, despite the good intentions, the meeting in Brasilia did not end with the announcement of an association agreement between Mercosur and the EU, but rather with Lula da Silva’s criticism of the “distrust” generated by the unilateral addendum proposed by the European Commission to raise environmental standards and monitor deforestation, which was not well liked in Argentina and Brazil. New clouds on the horizon of the agreement that has been negotiated for almost a quarter of a century make it unlikely that the optimism of von der Leyen, who said she wanted to conclude the agreement by the end of the year, will come true.
The results of the Summit in Brussels were limited and the disagreement over the final declaration and the condemnation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine – which did not finally arrive – staged the growing ideational distance between two traditional partners whose marriage is in crisis. It was Spain, together with the high representative of the EU and former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, who pressured Brussels to resume dialogue with Latin America and the Caribbean, but the meeting took place a few days before the general elections called by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez (who left the Summit before the end) and did not even have priority on the Spanish agenda.
However, the disinterest is mutual. In the last two decades since the announcement of the EU-Latin America strategic association and the first Summit in 1999, Europe has lost interest for a region that is committed to opening up to China and other emerging powers of the South with which it shares respect for national sovereignty, the priority of development including access to science and technology, the rejection of unilateral sanctions (imposed by the US and the EU) and a South-South cooperation with less tutelage and asymmetries. Although China imposes its own conditions (for example, not recognizing Taiwan), the concessions at least promise material benefits that an EU facing war on its borders cannot and will not compete with. The EU Global Gateway offers the region less funding than initiatives such as the Belt and Road, and while the EU remains the largest investor in Latin America, the annual capital flows cannot compete with resources from the US or China.
The Summit in Brussels is attributed to demonstrate the good will of the EU to continue betting on Latin America and the Caribbean, but it could not recover the lost time that other actors have taken advantage of to strengthen ties with a region that was previously considered “a natural partner” of Europe. If the EU wants to stop the “de-Europeanization” of Latin America, it has to offer something different than its competitors. For example, a horizontal association without tutelage and a European agenda, a commitment to a dialogue between equals on conflicts and international problems such as Ukraine or on the dilemma of placing both regions, Europe and Latin America, between China and the US.
*Professor of International Relations at the UAM, Madrid. Member of the Network of Political Scientists – #NoSinMujeres (@susannegratius)