The experience of United States unilateralism and protectionism under the Donald Trump administration, the growing dependence on China as an economic partner and competitor, problems with the supply of medical equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic, and most recently the Russian invasion of Ukraine have all strengthened the quest for strategic autonomy in the EU. Such strategic autonomy entails having the ability to act and cooperate with international and regional partners wherever possible, while being able to operate autonomously when necessary. Hence trade policy has not only the objective to acquire better access for European companies to foreign markets but is also an instrument to diversify sources of supply to Europe. Latin America plays a part in this.

At the first Latin American-European Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1999, the goal of developing a “strategic partnership” was announced. Since then, the term has appeared again and again in official declarations. The upcoming CELAC-EU summit in July 2023 offers an opportunity to find out to what extent interest in a strategic partnership persists and what the basis for such a partnership is.

There is no doubt that the strategic value of Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) has increased for the European Union since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Politically, LAC governments are important when it comes to voting on resolutions on Russia in the United Nations General Assembly. Economically, Latin America has raw materials (for example, natural gas and oil) that Russia supplies to the EU. Strategically, important raw materials are already imported from Latin America such as lithium. Based on its climatic (sunshine and wind) and geographic conditions (ample space and proximity to ports), LAC is considered to have the largest potential to produce and export green hydrogen at competitive prices among the different regions of the world. And Europe is one of the biggest future markets for green hydrogen.

On 27 October 2022, more than four years after their last meeting, the foreign ministers (mostly their representatives) of 60 countries from Europe and LAC met in Buenos Aires. In a press conference after the 3rd CELAC-EU Foreign Ministers Meeting Josep Borrell, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, declared that 2023 must be the year of Latin America in Europe and of Europe in Latin America.

What have been the most important outcomes from the CELAC-EU Foreign Ministers Meeting in October 2022? First, bi-regional dialogue has been resumed with a renewal of the related agenda. Second, a timetable was set for activities in 2022 and 2023, including a CELAC-EU summit with the heads of government to be held from 17–18 July 2023 in Brussels, the first since 2015. Third, there was open debate, also on issues (such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine and human rights violations in Latin America) on which there was no consensus with different views on both sides. Fourth, the debate was not dominated and overshadowed by the question of the participation or not of LAC’s non-democratic governments, as had happened at other meetings in the recent past.

But this does not take the issue of how to deal with authoritarian regimes in Latin America off the table. There will be no CELAC-EU summit excluding these countries. However, the EU should not refrain from openly criticising human rights violations in Latin America (as some governments in the region are also doing). Other potential points of conflict also became apparent.

First, even if CELAC under Mexican and Argentinean leadership has overcome its paralysis, Latin American regionalism remains in crisis and the question arises as to who speaks for LAC and how binding agreements really are. Unlike the EU, CELAC is not a regional organisation but a regional forum, with varying degrees of willingness on the part of member states to take part and engage.

Second, the European interest in importing mainly strategic raw materials (such as lithium) and energy (fossil fuels and green energy) from Latin America may clash with the latter’s own interest in reindustrialisation. In an opinion piece published in several Latin American newspapers ahead of the CELAC–EU meeting in Buenos Aires, Borrell stated that: “Latin America and the Caribbean represents a global power in terms biodiversity, renewable energies, agricultural production and strategic raw materials. […] Europe has the technological and investment capacity, and it also needs alliances with reliable partners to diversify its supply chains”. This sounds very much like the traditional division of labour between Europe and Latin America.

Third, tensions and contradictions may arise between Europe’s geopolitical interests in Latin America and European climate diplomacy. This is exemplified by the EU-Mercosur association agreement, which has been negotiated in principle since June 2019 but is currently still waiting to be signed. Fourth, there are clear differences between some Latin American governments and the EU in terms of defining and protecting democracy and human rights. Common values are often invoked in Sunday speeches, but practice is different.

Fifth, there is no common position in LAC, and between the EU and LAC (for example on sanctions), regarding the war on Ukraine. The joint communiqué avoided naming and condemning Russia as European governments had hoped. At least the participating governments were able to reaffirm their support for the objectives and principles enshrined in the UN Charter to defend the sovereign equality of all States and respect their territorial integrity and political independence. But conflicts of interest and differing assessments of the Ukraine conflict persist. What appears to be a question of choice from a Latin American perspective – how to position oneself in the Ukraine conflict and vis-à-vis Russia – for Europe is one of necessity – namely, defending oneself against a genuine military threat and attack on core European values. 

Whether 2023 will be the year of Latin America in Europe and vice versa remains to be seen. Geopolitical worldviews in Europe and Latin America have come to diverge. Bi-regional summits (and other bi-regional meetings) between CELAC and the EU can contribute to improved mutual understanding and, where appropriate, to a convergence of positions on key international issues. The upcoming CELAC-EU summit offers an opportunity to adopt a new agenda of bi-regional cooperation.  

If the EU wants to win over Latin America as a strategic partner, it must also act strategically. But Europe cannot expect preferential treatment from Latin America, where most governments want to differentiate and equilibrate their foreign relations as far as possible. But the EU also has room for manoeuvre. From a European perspective, it is better to rely on serious, substantive strategic partnerships – if necessary, with a few select partners – than on grand joint declarations that set aside principles and have no practical consequences.

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