EU-Latin American Relations: a new cycle of illusion (or disenchantment?)
Critical juncture, illusion, and disenchantment. The first of these terms holds significant prominence in Political Science to explain retrospectively a particular event or outcome. The other two have been employed by 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 current Latin America-European Union (EU) relations.
The relationship between the two regions 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 or Eastern Europe. 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. Similarly, the renegotiation of agreements towards the end of the last decade was prompted by the protectionist wave driven by Trump. Each critical juncture triggers a geostrategic realignment, which brings the two regions closer and eventually strengthens the ties between them.
Josep Borrell has called on the Union to recalibrate its relations with Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) and make them a priority. Recently, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen travelled to Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Mexico, and announced 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.
This 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.
The EU appears to be undergoing a maturation of its “geopolitical adolescence,” as described by former Commission President Barroso. Paradoxically, 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 endogenous and exogenous crises in recent years have become a critical juncture that catalyses a united response from all member states.
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 the ecological, digital, and socio-economic transitions. 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.
Latin America's critical juncture is not connected to the provision of artillery or drones. The region’s primary concerns arise from its relative dependence and 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 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.
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. In March 2023, the EU-LAC Digital Alliance was launched in Bogotá, 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.” It is conceived as a cooperation framework that brings together a range of initiatives to promote the development of digital infrastructure and the convergence of policies.
Yet, 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 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 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 US-China competition, Europe understands that in order to retain a relevant role on the international stage it needs to seek allies at the global level. Latin America emerges in this sense as a natural partner, with which it shares not only common values, but also an intense economic and commercial relationship. In response to the US model of surveillance capitalism 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.
Many critics have argued that the Global Gateway 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.
It is not enough to repeat in statements and conferences that both regions share values and principles that enhance cooperation; concepts such as democracy or human rights 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 Global South are showing greater pragmatism, the EU may find valuable opportunities in previously neglected parts of the world. Investment in the protection of the Amazon, the enhancement of value chains and even the commitment to finally sign the EU-MERCOSUR agreement, are positive steps and provide reasonable grounds for “illusion.” Yet, Brussels needs to take its commitments seriously, broaden and sophisticate its understanding of Latin America’s current context, and avoid simplistic formulas. Failing to do so may lead to a new period of disenchantment, both for Latin America and Europe.
Lucía Bosoer is a researcher in the Chair of Artificial Intelligence and Democracy at the School of Transnational Governance (IUE). She works on issues related to international cooperation, digital policies and the governance of emerging technologies.
Lucas Chiodi has a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations (UCC) and a Master's in Transnational Governance (IUE). He has worked in the Academic Secretariat of CARI and specializes in international cooperation for development and regionalism (UNSAM).