Common Interests or Conflicting Ones, Which Will Prevail? The CELAC-EU Summit

Paulina Astroza

8 mins - 14 de Junio de 2023, 07:05

As I was beginning to sketch out the initial ideas for this article on relations between the European Union (EU) and Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), I received a communication from the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Common Security and the European Commission addressed to the European Parliament and the Council of the EU proposing a new agenda for these relations. This was just in time to be able to ponder and rethink the ideas I had been developing after meetings with Euro-Latin American specialists in Quito and Madrid, thanks to the invitation of the EULAC and Carolina Foundations. 

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In the conversations and dialogues we held with political and academic authorities, EU institutions and international organisations, many of us were concerned about the direction of these relations in recent years, the success or otherwise of the Summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and the EU next July, and the real impact of the Spanish presidency of the EU Council from 1 July onwards. At the time, we could not have foreseen the outcome of the regional and local elections of 28 May in Spain and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s hastening of the general elections to 23 July, only 5 days after this Summit in Belgium.

It was stressed that the EU has an interest in “renewing” or “relaunching” relations between the two sides of the Atlantic. Relations are generally good, but it is true that after eight years of suspended CELAC-EU summits, the geopolitical context and the EU’s own internal problems have weakened relations. The EU has left gaps of influence in Latin America that other actors, especially China, have taken advantage of. This is a realisation that Europeans themselves have realised for quite some time. Russia has not stood still either and has also taken over some spaces. This has become evident with the war in Ukraine and the non-unanimous position of all Latin American states in the face of the war. President Lula da Silva’s own statements on his last trip to Beijing made this clear: he blamed “the West” (primarily, the US and Europe) for being responsible for maintaining the war by arming Ukraine and called for “empathy” with Russia, putting aggressor and aggressed on the same level. Although President Lula retracted much of what he said during his trip to Portugal, it remained in the back of our minds. Even more so with the highly condemnable statements made by the Brazilian president himself just one day before the informal meeting that invited 11 Latin American states. On that occasion he pointed out, looking at Nicolás Maduro, that what is happening in Venezuela is more the product of a “narrative” against him than a reality. Quite rightly, Chilean President Gabriel Boric, a leftist, came out to refute these arguments and to point out, once again, that the humanitarian crisis and the lack of democracy in Venezuela are not the product of a narrative but a reality. Indeed, Chile is currently experiencing a complex situation precisely because of Venezuelan migrants fleeing Maduro’s regime.

Beyond noting that Latin America is not experiencing its best moments of coordination and neighbourliness, the question that assails us is why today the EU has launched this initiative to reinvest or renew its ties with LAC. There are several factors that the published document itself acknowledges: the geopolitical context, the war in Ukraine, the energy crisis and the climate emergency, and the need to speed up the ecological transition, among other issues.

CELAC was created in 2011 and is composed of 33 states. This is an important number when it comes to voting in international organisations such as the UN. In speeches and documents, we always start by invoking our common bonds such as history, language, common values such as democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights. Are these common values as common as we claim? Do we in Latin America today have the same idea or interpretation of democracy, the rule of law and human rights when we have regimes such as Venezuela, Cuba, or Nicaragua? Does the same thing happen in Europe when there are two member states with sanction processes and sentences from the EU Court of Justice condemning one of them – Poland – because its rules go against European law, specifically against the independence and separation of the judiciary? Do we all, Europeans and Latin Americans, understand the same thing regarding the much-mentioned expression “integration”? I am convinced that we do not. That we do not always speak or understand the same thing and that much remains in rhetoric and on paper, but when we dig a little, we see the cracks under our feet.

Let’s be honest: we all have interests. Sometimes identical, sometimes complementary, sometimes contradictory. That’s politics, that’s life. Knowing how to surf in the big leagues of international politics means recognising them, identifying them, and prioritising them according to the ends pursued. The EU needs LAC today more than yesterday. LAC has always needed the EU. Beyond votes in an international organisation, anyone who is not the US or China is in a dilemma in the face of their rivalry. The war in Ukraine laid bare what was known: that Europe was highly dependent on Russia, especially in oil and gas. The EU has set itself ambitious climate emergency targets and for this it needs to accelerate the ecological and digital transition. It needs what it calls ‘critical materials’, including lithium and green hydrogen. Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia have 60% of this mineral, which today is so coveted by the major powers. Historical mistrust between the three has led them to rule out a partnership in order to have more weight at the negotiating table with investors. Divide, and you will rule. And so it goes in Latin America. But the scenario is not the same as in previous decades. A critical point today is the position of Latin American states to demand better conditions and not to become, once again, mere exporters of raw materials and for the great powers to add value to their industries and territories. It is only fair to demand that the buyers be willing to give in and be open to transferring technology (which is not available in Latin America to extract and treat lithium), to providing knowledge, to creating jobs, to respecting environmental standards in Latin America and not only in Europe, and to considering the communities affected by the exploitation, among other important issues. 

The document takes clear note of this. Fortunately, it does not use the unfortunate expression “Europeanising” relations between the two continents, a concept that has caused many of us Latin Americans who hear it in Madrid to cringe. The fact of having to explain it already showed that it was not a good phrase. If you explain it, you complicate it.

It is indeed necessary to relaunch EU-CELAC relations. We do need each other. We do have common and complementary interests and we must iron out the contradictory ones. Which ones will prevail at the Summit? It doesn’t really matter. The important thing is not speeches or family photos. What is important is action, follow through, and the establishment of concrete and achievable objectives – a win-win that will surely not be between blocs but, as it has been since 1999, at “variable speeds” depending on the Latin American states. We must assume that we are in a very complex context, that we have much to lose in the face of the challenges we face and much to gain if we come to an agreement. 
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