The links between Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) in relation to Europe have historically been strategic. From the "disencounter" of the Conquest and the colonial past to the wars of Independence, from the times of informal subordination to commercial and financial empires to the floods of immigration processes between the two regions, from cultural and ideological links to strong involvement in more contemporary processes, in a review that could go on at length, the two continents have seen their histories intertwine in a profound and frequent manner. Even the North American hegemony on the continent, persistent from the second post-war period to the present day in a variety of formats, cannot be understood in many of its features except in relation to the parallel trajectories of Latin American articulations (or lack thereof) with Europe.
In more recent times, the geopolitical key to a more autonomous insertion of the two regions in the international order would surely have been strengthened by an association of strategic profiles between them. In relation to the root of these links, beyond the sum of bi-regional agreements, it cannot be denied that there have been inconsistencies and short-sightedness on both sides. The birth first of the European Community and then of the European Union (EU), not only offered an integrationist model with more holistic and ambitious projections, as inspiring as it was not imitable. It also opened the possibility of new types of agreements and a more convenient dynamic of relational triangulation with the ever-present third party, the United States.
For some years now it has been well known that China has become the main trading partner of most South American countries, surpassing the EU but also the US, which in recent times has shown a very restricted interest in the region, with an absence of a strategic policy. These and other changes are part of what José Antonio Sanahuja has conceptualised as a crisis of globalisation, with strong geopolitical consequences, which has been aggravated by the simultaneous erosion of multilateral institutions. These phenomena, with diverse origins but related to the 2008 global crisis and the growing rejection of the impact of commercial globalisation on North-Western societies, were accelerated not only by the pandemic but also by processes such as Brexit and Donald Trump's victory in the United States. Perhaps at a time of the greatest disintegration and even weakness of regionalism in its contemporary history, LAC has observed these recent contexts from a position of marginality and profound crisis. In this severe framework, it is a fact of reality that the EU's most recent international policy has sought to reposition itself as a bastion of defence of multilateralism, in defence of an order based on shared rules at the global level. In this situation, could this be a favourable juncture for a new strategic rapprochement between LAC and the EU, with beneficial consequences for both blocs? Without naivety or over-optimism, in our opinion, there are good reasons to push for such a possibility from both regions, particularly from LAC.
Although the fact that the historical links between LAC and the EU admit of a critical balance, with the observation of “debts” and opportunities that have not been fully exploited, it is also worth appreciating the many achievements that have been made. As a not insignificant example of these, the incontrovertible reality that the EU has agreements with 31 of the 33 countries that make up the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) can be mentioned, which makes LAC the region that has developed the most institutionalised links with the EU. These agreements, beyond the criticisms that their contents or omissions may merit, have made it possible to boost the expansion of markets, the attraction of investment, and the deployment of collaboration on multiple issues (climate action, transformation and modernisation of production, science and technology, etc.). This new type of network of links and the need to deepen them are now being strengthened in the face of numerous processes of planetary magnitude. The need for comprehensive responses to the impacts of the pandemic, with the exponential growth of demands in various areas, can be highlighted in this regard. This event, whose causes stem in many ways from the previously existing order, has led to the acceleration of already existing transitions, but which now take on a pressing and unavoidable dimension: productive transformation and technology transfer in pursuit of an essential new post-pandemic development model; the unpostponable demand for genuine changes in terms of ecological sustainability to replace extractive projects; improved levels of competitiveness through the promotion of digitalisation; convergence in policies and standards in terms of social rights, the reduction of poverty and inequality; among many others.
However, in more than one sense, engagement has been weakened by internal phenomena in both regions. Taking Mercosur as an example, even with the confirmation of the agreement still under discussion with the EU, approved 'in principle' in 2019, it is doubtful that it can act as an effective catalyst for the development of a policy of strategic autonomy. The enormous weaknesses of Latin American regionalism, of which Mercosur is no exception, problematise this scenario. In particular, Brazil's authoritarian and erratic drift under the Bolsonaro government, which externally attempted to develop a policy of “subordination nationalism” with the Trump administration, has severely limited the potential of its intra-bloc leadership, a necessary condition for Mercosur to act more vigorously. If we add to this Argentina's almost permanent difficulty in stabilising its macro-economy or the renewed proposals to move forward on stand-alone Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with extra-zone powers (as in the case of the initiative announced by Uruguay in 2021, which has so far only provoked criticism from its other partners), it is clear that the bloc does not currently appear to have the minimum bases for the effective relaunch of autonomous-strategic action at the international level. That said, from a more modest and realistic perspective, the agreement could be a tool for the search for a policy of active non-alignment, which is very necessary for the region in light of the growing international rivalry between the United States and China, as well as the strong ties of dependence that the continent maintains with both. The possibility of agreeing on positions with the European Union that avoid the costs derived from the need to comply with the demands of one or the other actor in this dispute is undoubtedly an aspect to be explored. The specific highlighting of many issues in this regard puts on the agenda that seizing opportunities for genuine strategic rapprochement requires special political will, new visions and proactive attitudes from both blocs.
Once the most critical phase of the pandemic is over, economic dissatisfaction, which will surely assume growing proportions, will test in a very special way the resilience of Latin America's already deteriorated political systems. And it is not clear that the emerging scenarios will correlate with the strengthening of democracies in LAC, particularly in a continent where the militarisation of states has increased in most countries, with authoritarian drifts of varying degrees. Government capacities to effectively implement a necessary increase in public investment, as well as to inclusively manage distributive tensions, particularly by avoiding a deepening of inequality, in a context of increasing restrictions, will be key to maintaining political dynamics that avoid social polarisation and maintain adequate levels of institutionalisation. To this end, countries with a more solid institutional framework, as well as more consolidated channels of political representation, will surely find it easier to process tensions and discontent within a democratic political framework. However, most countries in the region do not seem to meet these conditions, and the pandemic carries the risk of a widespread deepening of political instability. Here too, despite its domestic difficulties, the EU's close and strategic companionship can play a decisive role.
In sum, the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts, in more than one sense, can be configured as a whole as a privileged observatory for a "longer" view, as a demanding interpellation for Latin America as a whole in relation to its links with the EU. It may even constitute the possibility of a turning point, even if the uncertainties still underway do not allow a clear direction to be discerned with any certainty. Most analytical tracks seem to converge - perhaps from different levels - in a perspective of aggravation of what was already a critical situation in general terms in Latin America. The most recent data are illustrative of these trends. In this regard, let us cite just some of the information that has been made public in January 2022: in its Annual Report, Human Rights Watch warned of a "reversal of freedoms" in LAC, while noting that the continent "is facing some of its gravest human rights challenges in decades"; the IMF downgraded its economic growth forecast for this year in the continent (2.4%), discontinuing the strong recovery seen in 2021 (6.2%); for its part, ECLAC has just warned of the certain possibility of a "prolonged social crisis" in the region, with a change in trend that would mean a return to "situations of 27 years ago", with poverty at 32.1% (201 million people) and extreme poverty rising to 13.8% (86 million people).
This strong asymmetry between the data and trends in LAC and the EU could be interpreted in the perspective that there is no strategic partnership possible in these critical contexts and that the only thing left to do is to appeal to increased cooperation. Without denying the transcendence of the latter, we believe that this view is restrictive and partial and that what is needed in the current contexts is a strategic partnership between blocs that act with the demands of an agreement between peers, albeit different from one another. The prospect of flexible partnerships, perhaps more modest but effectively oriented towards the strategic autonomy of the two regions and the reinforcement of multilateralism, is indispensable for affirming the international insertion strategies of both blocs. The new context emerging in the face of the crisis of globalisation, deepened by the pandemic and the persistent rivalry between the United States and China, thus provides an opportunity to relaunch partnerships of this type and projection, mutually demanding and without patronising.