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9 May 2006

Amy Barry, senior press officer at Oxfam International, shares her personal take on events at  the 4th European Union – Latin America / Caribbean summit in Vienna, taking place on 11-13 May 2006

Tuesday 9 May 2006

Today at 6.30am I am taking a bus from Oxford to Heathrow airport to catch a plane to Vienna for the 4th heads of state and government summit between the European Union and Latin America. Leaders expected to attend include Evo Morales, Hugo Chávez and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva from Latin America and Peter Mandelson, Bertie Ahern, and Jose Luis Rodríguez Zapatero from Europe.

The agenda of the summit is wide-ranging. Delegates will discuss a number of thorny issues including drugs and terrorism; development and aid; bi-regional cooperation; and the challenges facing small-island states. Oxfam is going because trade is on the agenda and we are concerned that the EU may use the opportunity to try to push for more free-trade agreements (FTAs) with Latin America. Our experience suggests that north-south FTAs rarely promote development and often leave poor people in developing countries worse off.

There is also an alternative summit taking place on the sidelines of the official meeting this week. Linking Alternatives 2 (Enlanzando Alternativas 2) brings together NGOs, trade unions, womens' groups and others from all over Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean. The last one took place in Guadalajara in May 2004 and the reunion in Vienna aims to advance the process of communication and collaboration in search of alternative models for development and solutions to some of the challenges faced by the continent. Oxfam will attend a number of sessions and workshops with other civil-society actors. There will also be a tribunal on the behaviour of transnational corporations (TNCs) in Latin America and their impact on development and human rights.

Trade negotiations at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) are floundering and in this context many developed countries are looking to regional or bilateral negotiations as a way of achieving more rapid and dramatic liberalisation than is happening multilaterally. The United States has historically been more aggressive in its pursuit of FTAs but as the WTO Doha round fails to deliver, the EU is increasingly turning its attention to regional pacts as well. This is worrying because developing countries tend to have less negotiating clout in regional agreements and often end up making more radical concessions than they would multilaterally. The necessary flexibility for developing countries and the special and differential treatment at least in theory offered at the WTO is not part of north-south FTAs.

The Vienna summit offers the EU a platform to pursue a free-trade agenda but Oxfam believes that this would be in direct contrast with its stated aim of promoting development, social cohesion and regional integration. Trade rules should be negotiated at a multilateral level and the summit should be used to address pressing issues such as the growing inequality in Latin America. According to the World Bank, the richest 10% of the population in Latin America earn 40-47% of all income in most Latin American societies, while the poorest 20% only earn 2-4%. Inequality is recognised as one of the main obstacles to promoting development, and gender equality as well as democracy and governability.

The EU should make better offers at the WTO – specifically in terms of cutting its agricultural subsidies and offering increased market-access opportunities, and should stop putting pressure on developing countries to radically reduce tariffs on industrial goods and decrease regulation of services. Only this way will it contribute to a new set of trade rules that promote rather than undermine development.

Away from trade, a number of other fascinating issues will be discussed in Vienna, including the ownership of natural resources in Latin America and the perceived "shift to the left" currently happening in the continent. It is welcome that as part of this complex political debate, the rights of the poor and marginalised in Latin American society are receiving greater attention than they have in the recent past. I’m sure it's going to be an interesting week.

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