Latin America: a special relationship with the EU?


Does Latin America exist? This question surfaced repeatedly at a recent British Council conference on "Latin America and Europe: Co-operation and Competition", which took place in Madrid, Brussels and London. Every so often, the Latin Americans pitched the question back across the Atlantic: does Europe exist?

At first sight, the second question is easier to answer, certainly more so than it was in the 1960s, when Henry Kissinger made his dismissive quip, "What's the telephone number for Europe?" Today we tend to assume that the phone for Europe is picked up in the glass-and-steel palaces of Brussels. This assumption airbrushes out problematic countries such as Russia, Serbia and Turkey, none of which fits the comfortably stable image which the EU/Europe coupling likes to project, but which are part of Europe nonetheless .

A similar reduction of the whole of Latin America to one of its parts was also much in evidence at the conference. For many Europeans, the phone number of Latin America is now picked up by Mercosur, the economic bloc formed primarily by the economic giants of Brazil and Argentina with their poorer neighbours, Uruguay and Paraguay, in 1991.

There are other economic associations, such as the much older but less dynamic Andean Pact, which links Peru, Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia and Ecuador. There are overlapping agreements between Andean pact members and Mercosur members. Chile has individual links with both groups, and a strong aspiration to join the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA), which takes in Mexico as well as the US and Canada.

By its size, wealth, and degree of economic integration, however, Mercosur is the main Latin American player in this field. It has the kind of continental profile that the EEC had in 1960s Europe. Mercosur has a population of almost 200 million, and has the fourth-highest regional GNP in the world. The conference's agenda raised several key questions: are these moves towards economic union in Latin America a positive engagement with the globalisation of the world economy? Or are they a form of inward-looking regional protectionism? Could they be the precursors of EU-style social and political integration on the continent? If so, does the EU offer a useful role model? Above all, would a special relationship between the EU and an integrated Latin America offer mutual protection from the established superpower in the US, and from emerging superpowers in Asia?

These questions themselves beg the original question, however: does Latin America exist as a single unit? The conference threw up a wide variety of responses. There was a certain consensus that Latin America does enjoy a mature cultural identity, but that economic integration was only a toddler, and monetary union was still in the womb. As for social and political integration, such projects had, in most cases, hardly been conceived.

Even in cultural terms, however, many stereotypes fell apart under scrutiny. Many European speakers glibly referred to the continent as "Spanish-speaking". It had to be repeatedly pointed out that the 160 million inhabitants of Latin America's largest and richest country, Brazil, speak Portuguese. It was less frequently remembered that millions of indigenous people speak their own languages, like Quechua.

Despite the compact shape of the continent, geographical unity cannot be taken for granted. Mexico is largely a Latin country, but it is in North America, and trades more with the US than with its southern partners. The Caribbean is also mainly Latin, but was often overlooked at the conference. The differences between countries, and within countries, are also obviously enormous, much more so than within Europe. The Latin America which is home to BMW owners in Brasilia is not the Latin America inhabited by indigenous villagers in the Andes, who may not feel Latin at all.

While the conference was taking place, Hurricane Mitch hammered Central America. The poorest regional economy on the continent suddenly hardly had any economy at all. A front page headline in the Financial Times, one of the conference sponsors, aroused some sardonic comments: "Hurricane forces coffee prices up." The human impact of the disaster merited only a cross-reference: "Thousands die, see page 7."

Poverty, racism and social exclusion remain chronic in many Latin American countries. This vast sector of Latin American life had hardly any representation at the conference. "Here we are, discussing regional integration, while our individual societies are disintegrating under our feet," as one Colombian put it.

The stereotype of a continent run by generals in dark glasses was repeatedly recognised as obsolete, yet it was mentioned so often that it is obviously still potent. Indeed, the victims of General Pinochet, and of the Argentine generals, were the ghosts at the conference's banquets. Pinochet's detention in Britain on a Spanish warrant raised some interesting questions about legal, as opposed to economic, integration. "He deserves to be crucified in every country, but it may not be helpful to start in Europe," was a fairly representative dinner-table comment.

Several speakers emphasised EU insistence on the inclusion of democracy and human rights clauses in trading agreements, something the US tends not to bother about. The subtext that Europe was a civilising force, compared to the barbarous Yankees, was subverted by reminders that several European democracies had had no problem about doing business with generals in dark glasses in the recent past. EU trade with Latin America has, in fact, declined with the demise of the 1970s dictatorships.

Nor were we allowed forget that the regimes which have replaced the generals are somewhat eccentric in their interpretation of democratic principles. The Argentinian journalist Horatio Verbitsky gave an excoriating account of the abuses which flourish under the Menem presidency in his own country, and under Fujimori's rule in Peru.

Colombia remains in a state of protracted civil war, and the price of trade union membership in several countries can still be assassination. "But democracy is not really necessary for economic growth," one of the participants commented privately one night, with sublime complacency.

The historical and cultural links which Europe enjoys with its former colonies still give Europeans a strong advantage in the Latin American marketplace. But it is an advantage the EU seems incapable of exploiting effectively, as it continues to lose ground to US and even Asian trade.

The conference discussions offered no single reason for this decline, but threw up several possible explanations.

The EU's Common Agricultural Policy, a flagrant instance of protectionism in a region that preaches free trade, was cited repeatedly as a huge obstacle to better relations. But Latin Americans also recognised that there is a lack of a "can-do" export culture in their businesses. Meanwhile, the US market not only enjoys the benefit of geographical proximity, it is also becoming more similar, in broadly cultural terms, to Latin American national markets. This similarity is likely to grow more marked with the rapid Hispanification north of the Rio Grande. These issues will arise again in the much more formal context of the first conference of EU members and Latin American and Caribbean states, which takes place in Rio de Janeiro in early June. This macro-gathering, with all its impediments of protocol, will hardly resolve many of the problems. But the very fact that it is taking place establishes that, for the European Union, Latin America now definitely exists as a global player.