The European Union in Latin America: A ‘neighbour’ of values

Gian Luca Gardini


Europe, together with the United States, has historically been one of the most established partners of Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC). The legacy of colonialism, European migration, language, religion, culture, as well as historical events and economic ties have largely shaped the political, social and economic development of Latin America since independence. The European Union (EU), as the political and economic expression of a united Europe, has long played a major role in Latin America. The EU has been a reference for Latin America’s own dream of regional unity, and an aspiration in terms of institutional setting, social cohesion, economic success, the promotion of democracy and the protection of human rights.

Thus, it is difficult to perceive a surge in a strict sense in European or EU presence in Latin America in the 21st century. On the one hand, the presence of Europe and later the EU in Latin America has been a constant feature for five centuries. On the other hand, a significant intensification of EU operations in Latin America can be traced back to the 1990s and reached its apogee at the end of that decade. In fact, the new millennium has witnessed a relative decline of Europe’s importance in Latin America. Yet a recovery of European interest in Latin America has recently taken place. Overall, the EU’s influence in Latin America goes beyond mere trade figures or political summits. It has mostly to do with identity, shared values and a common understanding of the world. Latin America is very much part of the West and is largely the product of European ideas and events (Rouquie 2014).

This chapter argues that the EU proposes to Latin America an articulated mode of relations, which has been able to evolve and adapt itself to changing circumstances. The first section discusses the historical role of Europe and the importance of the EU in Latin America. The second section analyses the geographical areas and productive sectors in which the EU’s presence is mostly felt. The third section addresses the Latin American perspective. Finally, the fourth section deals with the present and the future suggesting that the EU may significantly strengthen its commitment to Latin America in the years to come.

Europe and the EU as traditional partners of Latin America

Relations between Europe and LAC have a long and deep-seated history. Latin America was colonized primarily by Spain and Portugal, and events that took place in Europe were at the root of Latin American independence. The languages, religion and economic organization that the colonizers imposed on the indigenous people still reverberate in LAC today. Spanish and Portuguese are the most widely spoken languages. Christianity, particularly Roman Catholicism, is the dominant religion. Long-standing problems such as the concentration of land ownership and of economic and political power, a reliance on exports and vulnerability to global economic shocks, the late industrialization of the continent and international dependency, all remain a tangible legacy of the colonial social and productive structures.

European influence was key to Latin America’s independence. The ideals of the French revolution deeply inspired the founding fathers of Latin America (Rinke and Schulze 2010). The Napoleonic Wars were an enabling factor of independence as they weakened Spain and Portugal politically, militarily and economically, thus hindering their capacity to retain their colonies. This gave more space to creole elites as well as more vigour to the independence movements. The loyalists to the Spanish Crown in Latin America lost both hope and territory with the 1820 mutiny of Cadiz, when the troops assembled by the Bourbons to reconquer the Rio de la Plata colonies refused to embark owing to a dispute over salaries (Williamson 1992). This episode allowed the de facto consolidation of the newly independent republics.

Up until the end of the First World War Europe maintained considerable influence in Latin America through its economic presence and massive migration. The wealth of many LAC countries during the late 19th and early 20th century depended on commercial ties with European powers, particularly Great Britain (Brown 2008). At the same time, the tide of European migrants from Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany, Poland and other Eastern European countries brought to Latin America the workforce needed to sustain the flourishing agricultural exports and the nascent local industry. European migrants also brought political ideas and participation, thereby prompting Latin America to enter mass politics by the 1920s. Latin American art was also moulded by European influences, resulting in a unique syncretism of local themes and imported expressivity (Sartor 2003).

The years between 1945 and 1985 saw a decline of the European role in Latin America. Following the Second World War and with the onset of the Cold War, European former colonial powers lost their status as world powers and relations with Latin American were put on the back burner (Gardini and Ayuso 2015). European nations focused heavily on their own reconstruction and retrenched from international adventures. They lacked the economic capacity and the political appetite to remain a driving force in Latin America. The parallel ascendancy of the United States made this country the single most influential international player in Latin America during the Cold War. The establishment of the European Economic Community in 1957 did little to reverse this trend, and LAC increasingly became sidelined in EU international affairs until the late 1980s.

In the 1990s biregional relations took on a new verve, with European political and economic presence in LAC reaching new heights. There are three concomitant explanations for this. First, Spain and Portugal joined the EU in 1986 and, as former colonial powers, campaigned to include LAC in the EU external agenda. Second, in its quest for global player status in the 1990s and early 2000s, the EU adopted a rather active and dynamic position regarding LAC (Gardini 2012); however, then as now the continent was not a priority for the EU. Third, the ending of the Cold War opened up new spaces for actors other than the United States, and marked a coalescence of perceived interests—in political and economic terms—between the United States and Western Europe on the one hand and Latin America on the other. The US-sponsored political (democracy) and economic (open economies and free trade) model largely adopted by Western Europe then spread throughout Latin America. Economic openings and vast privatization attracted many European investments to Latin America. The process of democratic transition in the region during the 1980s and 1990s fuelled the relaunch of the LAC integration project, thus creating more commonalities and shared interests between the EU, which was eager to promote its own model overseas, and LAC.

The global financial crisis that shook the world in 2008 and the concomitant impetuous rise of the People’s Republic of China and other non- traditional powers have had a significant impact on the importance of Europe in Latin America. The European role has declined in relative terms over the past decade. Europe’s internal problems, such as the UK’s decision in a referendum to leave the EU (known as Brexit), migration, poor economic performance and institutional sclerosis have diminished the attractiveness of the European model in LAC. The rise of China has eroded the EU’s share of Latin America’s markets and tarnished its development model and cooperation activities. Since 2014 China has replaced the EU as LAC’s second most important trading partner (Pineo 2015), and China has actually become the leading export market for Brazil, Chile, Peru and Uruguay (OEC 2019). Chinese investments and cooperation are being marketed extremely well, not least for ideological reasons, and are now challenging European ones. The space available for the EU in the region is shrinking.

Yet a resurgence in the EU’s attention to Latin America has been palpable since 2016 (Mori 2018). The EU included Latin America in its 2016 Global Strategy, signalling a will to relaunch bicontinental relations. In 2016 the EU also signed the bilateral EU-Cuba Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement, which set out an agenda for engagement with Havana, still a key issue in regional politics. The same year the EU adopted a firm position vis- a-vis the Maduro administration in Venezuela. Brussels urged Caracas to restore democratic legitimacy and the rule of law. In that year too Ecuador joined the free trade agreement that Colombia and Peru had concluded with the EU since 2013. This relaunched EU economic diplomacy in Latin America and weakened the intransigence of the radical Bolivarian camp. Most importantly, these actions demonstrated the EU’s re-engagement with the continent, which was reinforced in 2019 with even bolder moves (see "Present and future: could the EU stage a comeback in Latin America?’).

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