EU-Latin American Relations: a new cycle of illusion (or disenchantment?)
High Representative of foreign affairs and security policy of the EU Josep Borrell has called on the Union to recalibrate its relations with Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) and make it a “partner of choice”, rather than a “natural partner”. Initiatives include new investments and a digital alliance. What can we expect from this renewed European interest in the region?
Critical juncture, illusion, and disenchantment. The first of these terms holds significant prominence in Political Science to explain retrospectively why a particular event or outcome has occurred. The other two have been persuasively employed by Argentinian economists Gerchunoff and Llach in their seminal book of the same name, shedding light on the perplexing economic cycles of Argentina. Together, these four words serve as lenses through which to observe and analyse the intricacies of Latin America-European Union (EU) relations, particularly in the current context of seemingly rejuvenated momentum.
The relationship between Latin America and the EU fluctuates between periods of disguised disengagement and active involvement. Disengagement is disguised because, in relative terms, the EU does not prioritize the region as it does with Africa, Eastern Europe or even the Indo-Pacific. However, due to historical, cultural, and economic ties, Brussels consistently maintains a semblance of presence. Active involvement occurs when the EU naturally intensifies its engagement in response to strategic interests being affected. For instance, during the 1990s, negotiations with Mercosur were initiated as a reaction to the US’ Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) proposal, which posed the threat of closing markets to extra-regional powers. Similarly, the renegotiation of agreements towards the end of the last decade was prompted by the protectionist wave driven by Trump, and currently, we could argue, the desire to reduce the concerning dependency on Russia and China. Each critical juncture triggers a geostrategic realignment, which brings the two regions closer and strengthens the ties between them, engendering an illusion of even greater robustness.
High Representative of foreign affairs and security policy of the European Union Josep Borrell has called on the Union to recalibrate its relations with Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) and make it a priority for the EU, rather than just for certain member states like Spain or Portugal. He has co-chaired the EU-CELAC ministerial meeting since 2018 and is preparing the EU-CELAC Summit – the 3rd since 2015 – for mid-July. Recently, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen travelled to Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Mexico, signed the usual commitments, and announced new investments in topics of interest for both regions. Her visit was the second by a top European executive so far this year; in March, Commission Executive Vice-President, Margrethe Vestager, travelled to Brazil, Colombia, and Chile.
Latin American countries are enthusiastic with good reason, as renewed European interest in the region is reflected in concrete initiatives. Of the €300 billion in global investments that the Global Gateway, the EU strategy for major investment in infrastructure development around the world, aims to mobilize between 2021 and 2027, half is allocated to Africa, and the remainder is divided among LAC and Asia. Yet, while this is a significant figure, when placed into broader perspective it may seem less impressive. For example, it falls considerably short of the $400 billion calculated by the World Bank as the cost of reconstruction of Ukraine, a sum that should be disbursed even earlier than the nearly seven-year duration of the Global Gateway. Moreover, enthusiasm could be tempered if the Global Gateway solely adopts an investment-based focus and neglects other cooperation modalities that are specific to Latin America’s regional identity, such as South-South and triangular cooperation, in which the EU is also actively involved.
The EU appears to be undergoing a maturation of its “geopolitical adolescence,” as described by former Commission President Barroso. Paradoxically, as the literature shows, crises often correlate with greater EU action on the international stage: even if such action is never entirely assertive, it does stir Brussels out of its dormant state. The series of successive and diverse endogenous and exogenous crises in recent years – notably the protracted war in Ukraine with its nuclear potential and uncertain prospects for resolution – have become a critical juncture that catalyses a united response from all 27 member states without hesitation.
Brussels perceives the world through the lens of the war in Ukraine. Its normative efforts encompass the establishment of rules, enforcement of standards, and the promotion of relevant transitions – ecological, digital, socio-economic. However, these approaches are often perceived as protectionist, and reveal a limited understanding of the specific challenges faced by countries in the so-called Global South.
However, despite the renewed EU geopolitical interest in the international system, it is undeniable that Europe no longer holds a central position. At least at the rhetorical level, Brussels appears to acknowledge this reality. The narrative for quite some time now has been that the EU needs to actively listen, interpret, and recalibrate its actions. This sentiment was emphasized by Borrell in his speech to the diplomatic corps, where he cautioned that Europe was excessively self-focused. In a strategic move during her recent tour to the region, Von der Leyen deliberately chose not to prioritize the war in Ukraine in the joint statements with other presidents. Instead, she focused on addressing agenda items that were of particular interest to each respective country.
Latin America’s critical juncture is not connected to the provision of artillery, drones, or the fight against Russian cyberattacks. The region’s primary concerns arise from its dependence and relative vulnerability within the international system. Instead of a war on its borders, Latin American countries are deeply concerned with alarming levels of crime, inequality and increasing poverty. The region surveys the world through binoculars, seeking avenues for generating hard currency and financing to address the economic and social consequences of a decade marked by setbacks and relative stagnation. Its politicians celebrate by signing commitments with the EU on relevant issues and eagerly anticipate the many meetings with various significant economic players, as they seek new markets and financing.
How much does Latin America needs from Europe? A lot, certainly. But it needs a lot from all partners who occupy key roles in an international system in transition. How much does Europe need from Latin America? Relatively less. It needs much more from the US, and paradoxically is much more dependent on the African continent, where migratory, economic, climatic, and war crisis pose a major challenge for European countries and the future of the Union. What does Latin America have to offer for Europe? Critical strategic resources, biodiversity, and value-added agro-industrial products, but also shared values and an attachment to international law that make the region a potential partner on several issues in multilateral forums. A “partner of choice”, rather than a “natural partner”, as Borrell said.
A Digital Alliance?
One of the key areas in which the EU intends to strengthen its links with Latin America is that of digital transformation, as reflected in the Global Gateway. Some of its flagship projects consist of country-specific investments, such as the deployment of 5G infrastructure in Brazil and Uruguay, while others have a more regional scope.
In March 2023 the EU-LAC Digital Alliance was launched in Bogotá, Colombia, with the aim of joining forces “for an inclusive and human-centric digital transformation in both regions and to develop bi-regional dialogue and cooperation across the full spectrum of digital issues.” While promising, the Alliance received considerably more coverage in Europe than on the other side of the Atlantic. It is conceived as a cooperation framework that brings together a range of initiatives that promote the development of digital infrastructure and the convergence of policies and regulations around digitalisation and the impact of emerging technologies.
Among the actions announced so far are the expansion of the BELLA programme, which seeks to reduce the digital divide and support the development of infrastructure to enhance the LAC digital ecosystem; the setting up of two regional Copernicus – the EU’s Earth observation programme – data centres in Panama and Chile; the establishment of a regional EU-LAC Digital Accelerator to foster competitiveness, skills and innovation in the digital domain; and the promotion of a structured multi-stakeholder dialogue for the improvement and harmonisation of digital policies and regulatory frameworks.
Many of these initiatives were already in place before the Digital Alliance was launched, and therefore it is unclear how much of this alliance will involve increased EU investment in Latin America and how much is part of a “rebranding” strategy for projects that would have taken place anyway. But the Global Gateway, and the Digital Alliance in particular, are not only about supporting the development of less developed regions of the world; rather, they are about strengthening Europe’s geopolitical position in a changing world.
In a context of increasing competition between the US and China, Europe seems to understand that in order to retain a relevant role on the international stage, it not only has to strengthen its position internally, but also needs to seek allies in other regions at the global level. Latin America emerges in this sense as a natural partner, with which it shares not only common values such as the promotion of peace, security, democracy, and human rights, but also an intense economic and commercial relationship. In response to the US model of surveillance capitalism dominated by Silicon Valley interests and China’s state-led digitalisation, the EU is trying to promote a human-centric approach to digital transformation. This “third way” in the digital sphere would fit harmoniously with Latin America’s strong tradition in defence of democracy and fundamental rights.
Since the launch of the Global Gateway, many critics have argued that the strategy lags far behind other large-scale foreign investment schemes, such as China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Accordingly, Europe will continue to struggle to compete both with traditional US influence and China’s growing presence in the region. For Latin American countries, caught up in the geopolitical competition between the two superpowers, greater European involvement in the digital field could be good news, since it would mean a diversification of the opportunities for foreign investment in tech infrastructure and therefore greater bargaining power for the region. This is particularly important in sensitive areas such as the development of 5G networks. Indeed, Washington has warned some South American countries of the risks that Huawei’s leadership in the field could entail, not only to their own security, but also to their bilateral relations with the US.
Yet, beyond the scope and real impact that the Global Gateway may have compared to other initiatives, the EU should be careful when thinking about the tools for cooperation between the two regions. For a digital alliance to really serve the region in terms of policy development and sustainable governance models over time, it has to involve all stakeholders in Latin America from the outset, not only governments and regional organisations, but also business, academia and civil society.
It is not enough to repeat in statements and conferences that both regions share values and principles that enhance cooperation; concepts such as democracy, human rights and peace promotion can mean very different things in Brussels and in Latin America – not to mention the differences between and within Latin American countries. While there are certainly common values and interests that allow for mutual learning, the conversation should start from the recognition of the cultural, political, and economic specificities of each context. Without this, the renewed partnership is unlikely to have any substantive results; Europe may, once again, end up exporting recipes that look great on paper, but fail in producing any real impact.
Interests prevail, and it is in this context that Europe still has much to offer. In a time when international alliances are becoming blurred and countries in the so-called Global South are showing greater pragmatism as they try to diversify their partnerships, the EU may find valuable opportunities in previously neglected parts of the world. Investment in the protection and sustainable use of the Amazon, the production of green hydrogen, the enhancement of value chains and even the commitment to finally sign the EU-MERCOSUR agreement, are positive steps for both regions and provide reasonable grounds for “illusion”. Yet, Brussels needs to take its commitments seriously, broaden and complexify its understanding of Latin America’s current context – much more multifaceted than it is perceived – and avoid simplistic formulas. Failing to do so may lead to a new period of disenchantment, both for Latin America and Europe.
*We appreciate the collaboration of Raphael Canell in editing this article.