Amid turbulent negotiations with cash-strapped Greece and difficult talks on Russian sanctions, E.U. leaders are looking south for the first time in more than 15 years, seeking ways to re-establish the continent’s bygone position in Latin America.
Leveled by ever-growing Chinese trade expansion and Russia’s arms trade campaigns, it may be difficult, if not impossible, for Europe to regain its former position among its Southern Cone partners.
On June 10-11, the biennial EU-CELAC summit took place in Brussels, gathering a vast array of more than 60 heads of states and high-ranking political leaders. Led by Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, and former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, now in charge of the European Council, the delegations of the two blocs met to discuss issues fundamental to their mutual partnership though often minimized on the European agenda, such as major investments in innovation, free trade agreements and visa liberalization.
As Tusk himself stated on the post-summit press briefing: “This partnership is not just a political one: it is much more than that.”
Sadly, however, it is precisely the political dimension in which the decreasingly influential E.U. can still offer the most.
Despite pledges from E.U. commissioners Neven Minica (international cooperation) and Elzbieta Bienkowski (internal market and SMEs) that the coming years will see a total of US$133 million worth of Brussels-led investment in Latin America, the E.U. is still unable to match China’s offer to the region. Beijing recently presented an unprecedented promise of US$250 billion over span of ten years, to be invested mostly in Brazil, Peru, Argentina and Chile.
Aware of its financial limitations and asymmetry in means, Brussels is aiming to avoid total marginalization in the region by relying on more soft-power deals.
The first Latin American countries to benefit from wider E.U. institutional and know-how support are Chile and Colombia, who have already concluded mutual agreements on crisis management operations.
Brussels will provide advanced training and high-profile experts, particularly important in light of the anti-drug trafficking operations to which both blocs have committed. Bogotá is also hoping to use European aid in fighting armed groups present in the country — an issue that both Tusk and Correa highlighted as paramount within the summit’s agenda. The E.U.’s contribution to the peace talks between the Colombian government and FARC guerrilla group will come through the creation of a special trust fund set up by the Commission to foster peace-building actions in the country.
But the main carrot that Tusk and the European Commission’s head Jean-Claude Juncker put on their stick for Latin American leaders was a major breakthrough in E.U. visa policy.
The liberalization saw its first critical act on May 28, when five Caribbean countries — Dominica, Grenada, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Trinidad and Tobago — gained visa-free entry to the Schengen area, comprising 26 European countries, for their nationals.
Further steps to open the Schengen area will benefit citizens of Peru and Colombia, who, as of January 1, 2016, will be able to travel to all E.U. countries without a visa for a period of 90 days. According to the Council’s official communiqué, after those agreements come into force, more than 80 percent of CELAC countries’ citizens will be able to enter the Schengen zone visa-free.
It is hard to assess whether the soft power actions will suffice to re-establish a solid European bridgehead in Latin America.
The Americas are, however, set to once again become an arena for direct confrontations of major global powers. With expansionary Chinese policy, a steady flow of Russian armaments, growing attention from Washington and the hopeful plans of Brussels all playing the same influence game, the outcome might surprise everyone, especially those living in Latin America.