Can the crisis become an opportunity for the reactivation of relations between the European Union (EU) and Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC)? Asking this question has become – I have the impression – a habit for those of us who deal with bi-regional relations and consider them to be below their potential. Each time a new challenge appears on the horizon, there is a renewed hope that it will not lead to a self-absorbed focus of attention and resources but a re-appreciation of cooperation with those on the other side of the Atlantic. The expectation is that the shared plight will foster a joint effort, or at least a position of solidarity. On these occasions, experts contribute to building the desired bridge over the ocean by drawing up lists of advantages and opportunities that would generate an intensification of relations between the EU and LAC in the current crisis. It occurred with the Covid-19 pandemic and it is happening with the Russian military attack on Ukraine.
The truth is – it seems to me – that divergent perspectives on the same phenomenon and heterogenous experiences of the same event, if not discussed, eventually deepen the waters that separate the two regions. The typical rhetoric of "natural partners" suggests an identity between the EU and LAC that conceals the substantial asymmetries between the two, which condition different views, judgements and actions. The pandemic produced a global crisis, yes – but its effects were, above all in the socio-economic sphere, significantly more severe in LAC. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is seen as a massive disruption of the world order based on international law, yes – but in Europe it is experienced as a much closer and existential conflict. The Eurocentric handling of Covid-19 vaccines and their patents disappointed LAC countries interested in rapid access to vaccines and global public goods in the field of health. The heterogeneous, in some cases ambiguous and ambivalent, positioning of LAC states vis-à-vis the Russian-Ukrainian conflict has disappointed the EU.
The factors that cause this type of misunderstanding between the EU and LAC lie – among other things – in differences in history, geographical location, international positioning, domestic policy, economic interests, political priorities, etc. The irritation that these misunderstandings provoke, or even the misunderstandings themselves, could perhaps be lessened if the differences covered by the rhetorical veil of "cultural similarity" were worked on more. The "value convergence" that is often referred to undoubtedly facilitates understanding, but it is not enough to homologate divergent perspectives. Multilateralism as well as the rules-based international order valued in both the EU and LAC are experienced differently in each of these regions – as are their major imperfections and grey areas. There will be universal needs and values, and yet the reference to universalism in international politics sometimes looks too much like a hegemonic expectation of generalizing a singular experience from a specific position. In a relationship marked by profound asymmetries, the discourse of "similarity" can be confused with, suggest or be interpreted as a mandate for "making” the weaker “similar" to the more powerful (form follows money). Moreover, in international relations there is – if not a contradiction at least – a conceptual tension between "universalism" on the one hand and "cultural similarity" and "value convergence" on the other; this is particularly evident in the field of humanitarian assistance.
The concept of "strategic partnership", which incidentally contrasts with that of "natural partners", could perhaps be more visionary if it were based less on "common values" than on complementary interests. The growing confrontation between the US and China, for example, reduces the room for maneuver for both the EU and LAC. However, geopolitical considerations lend themselves best as a source of impetus for cooperation when they go beyond simple competitive reactions, either because LAC plays the European card against the US or because the EU takes a suspicious view of the advance of new actors in LAC, such as China. A realistic approach would do justice to the fact that keeping the flame of mutual relevance burning between the EU and LAC has become an increasingly difficult task. The difficulty is greater at the bi-regional than at the bilateral level, and more visible at the level of political dialogue than at the level of broad sectoral cooperation or rich transnational relations.
These brief reflections do not aim to recommend a specific policy or innovative cooperation instruments on either side. Nor are they intended to be a lamentation of what is not and could be or a detailed demonstration of the opportunity that the current crisis offers, once again, for a renewal of EU-LAC relations. Rather, an alternative perspective is proposed here, a modification of the approach, a shift in the way of thinking about the link between LAC and the EU. It would be a matter of recognizing the heterogeneities between and within the two regions, of problematizing asymmetries and managing inequalities. It could be said that bi-regional policy would have a better chance of becoming more fruitful if – abandoning homogenizing essentialism – it ceased to emphasize identity between similar entities and – to paraphrase Hannah Arendt – instead started from plurality in action towards cooperation between different ones. I believe it's worth it.