Can Europe Make It?

The EU-Mexico global agreement: time to put words into actions

The EU-Mexico Global Agreement is a vestige of a different era, the EU emboldened by ‘its success’ in shaping and promoting the democratisation of southern Europe, then of the post-Communist countries in the early 1990s.

Pablo Calderón Martínez
4 November 2014

It has almost become common wisdom in academic circles that the EU’s democracy support/promotion strategy of democratisation by integration is different to those pursued by other actors simply because – unlike say NATO or NAFTA – the EU’s democratic conditionality (encapsulated in the Copenhagen Criteria of 1991) goes well beyond mere rhetoric.

In simple terms, the EU does not merely gives ‘lip service’ to democracy. No democracy means no integration. Simple.

In terms of how the EU promotes and supports democracy/human rights outside its borders, however, it is a completely different story. Countries outside Europe that have no real chance of integration (particularly in the MENA region) have long been subjected (rather obviously) to a very different strategy that has proved far from successful.

The combination of negative conditionality without the real prospect of integration simply does not seem to be an effective tool. In other words, the stick without the ‘golden carrot’ is far less convincing. As an approach, it has involved the EU in far more pragmatic approaches to democracy promotion, which partly explains the myriad of policies that lead to confusion and contradiction.

The EU-Mexico Global Agreement, however, is a vestige of a different era. When the agreement was being negotiated – back in the late 1990s – Mexico was on the brink of democratisation, liberalising its economy following the signing and implementation of NAFTA, and the sleeping giant of Latin America as it was thought of was – despite the acute economic crisis – broadly considered to be implementing all the right policies.

Similarly, the EU was emboldened by ‘its success’ in shaping and promoting the democratisation of southern Europe in the late 1970s, and then of the post-Communist countries in the early 1990s. The use of ‘conditionality’ was seen as effective and justifiable. The inclusion of a ‘democratic/human rights clause’ in the Mexico-EU Global Agreement – which served as the foundation for the strategic partnership established in 2008 – was by no means a surprise.

The very first article already mentions democracy and human rights as the foundation for the agreement. This is in stark contrast, for instance, to the NAFTA document, which does not mention these requirements at all. Certainly it was not lost on the European leaders of the time that there were limitations to such a clause; after all, Latin America is widely considered to fall within the natural US area of influence. As such, the real leverage potential of the EU is clearly confined. Confined, however, does not mean non-existent.

EU-Mexico partnership is still key

Even though attempts to strengthen the Latin American-EU connection seem to be faltering (the height of the cooperation impetus was during the two Spanish presidencies of the Council in 1995 and 2002) – thanks to the challenge from China, the EU-Mexico partnership still represents a key agreement for Mexico.

Despite the clear dominance of the United States as a trading partner and source of investment, the EU still represents Mexico’s second largest commercial partner (above Canada, China and the rest of Latin America) and source of foreign investment.

What is more, as president Peña Nieto stakes his claim to be Mexico’s great reformer, international support and recognition becomes increasingly important to him. Peña Nieto has made a particular effort to change Mexico’s image abroad. It was during the first days of his presidency that it was announced that Mexico would stop releasing official data on organised crime-related deaths, in a clear move to try to change the focus away from Mexico’s drug-related violence.

His ‘pact for Mexico’, which has led to key reforms in the state-owned oil industry and the labour market, as well as his swift move to jail Elba Esther Gordillo – the notoriously corrupt leader of the teachers trade union – were all moves designed to consolidate his image as a different kind of leader. These sorts of ‘grand statements’, however, are nothing new. In 1988 former Mexican president Calros Salinas de Gortari – until recently (apparently) a backer and supporter of Peña Nieto – was a similarly self-proclaimed Mexican moderniser. Under his leadership Mexico liberalised its economy and signed NAFTA. Also during the early days of his presidency, Salinas de Gortari jailed yet another notoriously corrupt trade union leader – this time of the oil industry – Joaquín Hernández Galicia (‘La Quina’) and implemented swift economic reforms. These moves were also aimed at the international audience as much as they were aimed to Mexican society.

Peña Nieto makes an effort

Peña Nieto finds himself in a similar position. He has put some considerable effort into gaining support and recognition from the EU. Probably the most significant move so far has been the freeing of the French citizen Florence Cassez, who served seven years of a sixty year sentence for kidnapping after the Supreme Court ruled her rights were violated during her arrest. The violation in question refers to the ‘staging’ of her arrest for the TV cameras. This ‘staging’ took place in early December 2005 in a ranch in Mexico State. The idea was for the public to witness a huge security mobilisation that would help raise the profile of the state’s new governor: a young, TV friendly politician being touted for the presidency. His name, Enrique Peña Nieto.

Back in France, Nicolas Sarkozy embraced the case and put pressure on the Mexican government to realise Ms Cassez. The administration of Felipe Calderón refused to buckle to pressure and maintained that this was a domestic matter and that, according to numerous witness accounts, Ms Cassez was in fact guilty. Things changed quickly, however, once Peña Nieto and Hollande were in power in their respective nations. Hollande saw an opportunity to score valuable political points by achieving what his predecessor had failed to do. Peña Nieto saw this as an opportunity to muster support for his presidency’s reforms from France (and by extension, the EU). In January 2013, a few months after Peña Nieto assumed the presidency, Cassez was freed and Hollande – along with most of the French political establishment – was full of praise for the new Mexican government.

It would be nice to think this was all just a happy coincidence – after all the Supreme Court’s independence is supposedly guaranteed – but in a country where only about two percent of violent crimes are successfully prosecuted by a clearly dysfunctional justice system, it would be hard to believe. 

The truth is that France and the rest of the EU were only too happy to jump on the ‘Mexican moment’ bandwagon. Now that the Mexican moment has suddenly, yet unsurprisingly, been replaced by the latest ‘Mexican murder’, the EU is yet again at a crossroads in its relationship with Mexico.

Prospects of renegotiation

Earlier this month a group of 16 MEPs called for renegotiation of the 1997 Global Agreement – currently being discussed by representatives from both parties – to be halted in light of recent events developing in the states of Guerrero and Mexico. After all, the strategic partnership between Mexico and the EU does specifically call for further coordination and cooperation on issues relating to democracy, human rights and the rule of law

Yet, the very weakly worded statement put forward by the EU delegation is far from a strong condemnation or even a veiled criticism of the Peña Nieto administration. In fact, the statement goes so far as ‘taking a good view’ of the few detentions and declarations from the government.

The EU should be aware that opportunities to have a positive impact on foreign countries by putting its leverage potential to good use are few and far between. There is no doubt that Mexican policy-makers are far more concerned with criticism north of the border. Yet, Peña Nieto’s strategy of looking for international support for his reforms increases his administrations’ sensitivity to international leverage.

Now that the EU-Mexico agreement is being renegotiated and considering the lack of real steps towards solving Mexico’s security crisis, the EU has a rare opportunity to positively influence developments far from its borders without having to risk much. A decision to move away from rhetoric and mean what it says would represent a positive step in the right direction. 

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