EU-Latin America: reviving the ‘other’ transatlantic relationship


Digital & Data Governance

Picture of Daniel Pietikäinen
Daniel Pietikäinen

Communications Assistant at Friends of Europe

Next week, on 14 December, the German presidency of the EU Council will host a meeting in Berlin with Latin American ministers. The summit is a rare consultation between the EU and the Latin American region, as the former focuses its efforts in neighbouring Africa.

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell, who is chairing the meeting, has lamented the “sense of neglect” across the Atlantic, even as EU member state investment in the region accounts for more than the “total of EU investment in China, India, Japan, and Russia combined”. The EU and Latin America have historical and cultural ties, and share deep commitments for democracy, human rights, rule of law and multilateralism. However, there is a growing perception that these ties are not reflected in the EU’s allocation of resources, or interest.

The summit will take place against the backdrop of political instability in Latin America. A combination of economic malaise and political discontent have galvanised South and Central American societies against their ruling classes not only in oppressive regimes like Venezuela and Nicaragua, but also in competitive democracies like Colombia, Peru and Chile.

Compounding social discontent is the COVID-19 crisis. The pandemic has struck the region harder than any other in the world, inflicting untold social and economic damage. Latin America’s death toll is similar to Europe’s, accounting for one in every three losses globally.

Meanwhile, foreign investment in the region is projected to fall by 50% in 2020, with another 45 million people set to be plunged into poverty. As GDP per capita levels sink back to 2010 levels, many fear a new ‘lost decade’ in the region.

A close partnership with Latin America would be a global leap for Europe’s Green Deal

Now is the time to reinforce Europe’s commitment to Latin America. Moving from funding mechanisms and development cooperation to an intensified partnership could net rapid gains for both regions.

A close partnership with Latin America would be a global leap for Europe’s Green Deal. The region has plenty of expertise and strategies to combat environmental degradation. “It’s important that the EU sees the topic of the environment not only from its own perspective, but also from outside countries’ perspectives. We all want to fight against climate change, but Europe’s environment toolbox does not necessarily contain all the answers,” one Latin American Ambassador stated.

After all, Latin America is a global leader in sustainable energy, and the region with the highest share of renewable power generation – 68%; Europe is at 37%. Countries like Costa Rica and Uruguay generate virtually all their electricity through renewables. They will understandably recoil if the EU approaches sustainability in a confrontational manner, denying Latin America the natural resources they need for economic recovery.

To take bi-regional cooperation to the next level, Europe must also consider the digital potential of Latin America. With an average internet penetration of around 70%, the region offers tremendous opportunities for cooperation. In light of Europe’s deterioration in the global connectivity race and China’s infrastructure investments in Latin America, it’s time for Europe to take concrete steps towards a ‘digital alliance’.

Perceived as a trustworthy actor, the EU could help thaw relations, even on particularly thorny issues

On a broader scale, science, technology and innovation should be a key area of focus. Countries like Argentina and Mexico will produce and distribute AstraZeneca’s vaccines in the region; enhanced cooperation in this area would be a boon for the COVAX initiative, as current global production will only reach full vaccine coverage by 2024.

The trade deal with Mercosur is currently being held up by the European side. After 20 years of negotiation, the deal has gone from being hailed as a landmark achievement to a historic disappointment for the Southern bloc. The EU has been inconsistent in its requests, culminating in the current deadlock over environmental concerns in the Amazon. From the Latin American perspective, current difficulties have little to do with the environment and everything to do with politics. Soybeans, which drive much of the deforestation in the Amazon basin, already enter the EU free of tariffs.

If the EU stops dodging the deal, it could generate positive momentum in the region, regardless of political disagreements over the Amazon.

Perhaps the area where the EU could have the most impact, however, is in unfreezing multilateral cooperation in the region. The issue of Venezuela has divided the continent along political lines, paralysing regional institutions. Regional bodies like the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC),  the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Organisation of American States (OAS) are facing hard challenges. The only bright spot has been the growing presence of sub-regional economic alliances.

Perceived as a trustworthy actor, the EU could help thaw relations, even on particularly thorny issues such as Venezuela and the recent Bolivian crisis. A concerted diplomatic effort toward Latin America would be a great step towards bringing countries back to the negotiating table and convincing them of the need to tackle the giant issues together.

EU-Latin America relations are at a crossroads

So, what’s going to happen at next week’s Berlin summit?

The EU might opt for the bare minimum. They could invite Latin American countries to view the European agenda and agree on basic measures for sustainable and digital cooperation. They could also push for more frequent ministerial summits and promise to continue efforts towards the ratification of the Mercosur agreement. This approach would only reinforce the outdated donor-style cooperation.

Maybe they’ll take a slightly more comprehensive path, and include new areas for cooperation in the bi-regional agenda with Latin America, such as founding a health partnership or intensifying science and technology cooperation. Concrete efforts to alleviate pressure could include the introduction of new state-backed loans, Green Bonds and debt relief.

Or the EU could be ambitious. It could open thematic working groups to share expertise and innovation for shared challenges such as climate change and the digital transition. Concrete commitments and timelines for continued diplomatic rapprochement would send a clear signal to Latin America. A framework for human rights and gender policy support during the pandemic and recovery would also be a boon for millions of people in the region.

Importantly, the EU can ratify inter-regional and sub-regional mechanisms for partnerships; it could operate as a form of support for the rebirth of Latin American regional integration systems. This could begin a high-level political effort to place the enormous concerns that face Latin America on the high table of international politics, while supporting Latin American solutions.

EU-Latin America relations are at a crossroads. Europe may still open its arms to a real partnership with the region, but are they ready, willing or even interested? Whatever happens in Berlin will be quite telling.

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