Can Europe Make It?

From regionalism to free trade: Europe’s dangerously mixed messages to Latin America

A recent paradigm shift in the EU's foreign policy threatens to undo years of successful European stability-building efforts on the Latin American continent. Europe needs to confront its own mistakes before it is too late.

Daniel Schade
7 August 2013
Flickr/Chris Devers. Some rights reserved.

Flickr/Chris Devers. Some rights reserved.

The heated internal debates on the European crisis have led to a reduced attention to how Europe actually interacts with the outside world. This is regrettable and endangers the legitimacy of the European project in itself. After all, despite Europe’s inward-looking focus, the world is changing rapidly – and how Europe reacts to these changes will determine its own fate.

Paradigm shift

These external challenges to the legitimacy of the European project are becoming more and more clear in its relations with the Latin American continent. While Europe has maintained a successful and coherent foreign policy towards the region in the past, this has now been largely replaced by mixed messages from the European side, which remain largely outside of the European public’s attention. This happens at a time when Europe faces a Latin America that is more diverse, more assertive, and more powerful than ever. 

Latin America looks very different today compared to only twenty years ago. With democratic regimes in place across most of the continent, and an unprecedented economic boom in the 2000s, these countries' claim to have their opinion heard on the international stage is now stronger than ever. This is, of course, not to say that the conditions in Latin America are perfect. Just looking at the recent protests in Brazil has shown that the path towards truly inclusive, stable and egalitarian societies is still a long one. But a parallel look at the current state of the old continent, however, reveals that Europe currently does not stand on a particularly high ground either.

While the EU and its constituent countries have always acted in the shadow of Latin America’s big neighbour, the United States, the foreign policy that it has enacted towards the region since the end of the Cold War has nevertheless been nearly universally applauded in the academic realm. Its efforts to promote democracy, stability and development on the continent differed from those of the United States. Rather than focusing on the furtherance of trade ties and the active promotion of regimes that were regarded as friendly, Europe has based its relations with Latin America on a variety of principles.

Trade and economic progress always played a part in these other transatlantic relations as well, but Europe was keen to promote democracy and human rights as shared values between the two continents. This was achieved through an attempt to combine trade issues with those of Europe’s development policy, while fostering a political dialogue across the Atlantic. Interestingly enough, and rather than singling out countries to cooperate with individually, Europe was equally keen to help in the development of regional organizations in Latin America akin to the European Union itself.

While such a cooperation on a regional, rather than bilateral, basis was certainly justified by attempts to simplify negotiations and to achieve economies of scale, the EU had another important motive for such a policy: the European project in itself was one of uniting a very diverse region to make it more stable and increase its prosperity. Hoping that its own successes would be transferable, the EU began to support similar projects elsewhere. Such a regional cooperation policy for its own value’s sake would then help legitimize the European project at home and vis-à-vis more traditional international actors. In operating such a policy, the EU could portray itself as a normative actor keen to enhance its internal value system based on democracy and human rights across the world.

This policy was indeed successful throughout the 1990s, as the EU entered into agreements with all Latin American regional organizations. But now that the playing field between the two regions is more equal than ever, Europe has started to lose this track record. In the last years, the outcomes of negotiations with Latin America do not fit with the EU’s earlier policy of promoting regionalism and ties that go beyond trade interests. At the same time, the EU’s rhetoric is still that of a transatlantic “partnership” based on the cooperation between the EU and Latin America’s regional organizations.

Case in point 

This change in policy patterns can best be observed by taking a closer look at the case of the EU’s relations with one of the oldest Latin American regional organizations, the Andean Community of Nations (CAN). When negotiations on increased ties began between the two regions in 2007, the EU’s goal was to reach an extensive so-called Association Agreement. Such an agreement has a free trade component, but equally covers two other pillars that are concerned with the coordination of the EU’s development policy, as well as that of a political dialogue. All of this is in line with the EU’s goals of promoting international relations on a wider basis than free trade only.

The outcome of the negotiations, however, was the recent conclusion of free trade agreements with only two of the CAN countries, Peru and Colombia, both dropping the development and political dialogue components. 

This can at least in part be explained by the CAN's internal ideological differences, which are also to be found within other regional groupings in Latin America. However, by concluding agreements with only two of its members, the EU has not only violated its long-standing foreign policy goal of promoting regionalism, but also contributed to the on-going dissolution of CAN. After all, entering into bilateral free trade treaties violates one of the core principles that regional organizations like the EU are built on.

This specific case leaves many open questions regarding the continuity of a European foreign policy that is based on more than free trade. On one hand, the countries that the EU entered into agreements with are those that agree with the EU’s vision of globalization, and most of them have already entered into similar free trade treaties with the United States. On the other hand, the two countries left out of the deal, Bolivia and Ecuador, have a different vision of how globalization should function. 

This case thus represents a missed opportunity for the EU on three levels. Firstly, rather than helping Latin American countries to overcome their ideological differences by insisting on negotiating with the CAN only, the EU has weakened this regional body even further.

Secondly, dropping the necessity to include political dialogue and development policy pillars in an agreement has weakened the EU’s possibility to debate important human rights and democratic issues. This is despite concerns over the human rights track record of one of Europe’s free trade partners, Colombia.

Thirdly, allowing an exception to region-to-region ties has created expectation in other Latin American countries to be granted a similar treatment, thereby weakening a core element of the EU’s formerly successful Latin America policy. And similar developments can equally be observed in the EU’s relations with other regional groupings in Latin America.

Today, Europe is sending mixed messages to Latin America. This does not bode well for a future relationship between Europe and Latin America that would be based on shared principles.

Overall, there is nothing wrong with a European foreign policy that defends the interests of the EU and its peoples, and adapts to changing international constraints. The current problem is, however, that such a foreign policy requires transparency about one's goals - Europe’s actions are veiled by a very different discourse.

This situation threatens to externally undermine the legitimacy of the European project at a time of unprecedented internal upheaval. Europe has to acknowledge that other democratic countries can have different visions of how to structure the economy and the international system. One does not have to like such views, but one should accept them, and aim to achieve compromise on this basis.

To uphold its own legitimacy, Europe again needs to starts practicing what it preaches – or at least become more transparent about its true goals.

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