As the EU seeks to forge closer ties with democracies around the world amid the war in Ukraine, one region has been largely overlooked so far, despite its vast partnership potential: Latin America.
A new representative study by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, which surveyed 12,000 people in 10 Latin American countries, found that Latin Americans see the European Union as their preferred partner, and that there is significant overlap in this which concerns values such as human rights or multilateralism. EURACTIV spoke to Friedrich Ebert Stiftung President Martin Schulz about the survey results and what they mean for the European Union.
Martin Schulz is the president of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung. Between 2012 and 2017, he served as President of the European Parliament before being selected as the top candidate for the Social Democrats in the 2017 German federal elections.
- Despite its vast potential as a close partner in times of crisis and beyond, Latin America is still largely neglected in the EU and is often portrayed as a continuation of Spanish or Portuguese foreign policy.
- The war of Russian aggression has led some Latin American states to move away from the EU in their approach to Russia, as sanctions would be too costly for them.
- Europe must do more to help the region economically to prevent deepening social divisions and must intensify economic cooperation with the region on an equal footing.
- The EU has an advantage over China in the region because the population recognizes the EU as a privileged partner. But the EU must act now to use this to its advantage.
Your representative study clearly shows great potential in EU-Latin America relations. Why has the EU neglected such an important region for so long?
It is something completely inexplicable that I have been fighting against for many years. As Leader of the Socialist Group in the European Parliament and President of the European Parliament, I have repeatedly stressed that no region on this planet has as many cultural, economic and political similarities with Europe as the regions Central and South America. It is not limited to the social-democratic perspective but to the whole fundamental orientation of these countries. And that should not be underestimated.
If we look at the developments of the last year and a half, particularly regarding the elections in Chile, Colombia and perhaps also in Brazil, progressive governments in Europe, in particular, would be very well advised to make greater efforts to reach out to Latin America.
There are two main reasons for neglecting relations with Latin America: One problem is that EU member states, such as the Federal Republic of Germany, select the economically most interesting countries and then focus mainly on the bilateral level.
At the same time, many see Latin American politics as a continuation of Spanish-Portuguese foreign relations – only with a European dimension. These are in my view the main factors of this abandonment of the region.
Do you expect a greater focus on Latin America in this context, especially given the tense geopolitical situation we are currently facing?
I think the European Parliament is the most open-minded part of the European institutions towards Latin America. There is a great awareness of the importance of the region.
A danger is that some Latin American states are moving away from the European Union in their approach to Russia.
While Latin American politicians – especially those on the left – condemn this shameful war, many do not support the sanctions imposed on Russia. Many politicians confirmed this to me during my trip to São Paulo, Montevideo and Buenos Aires.
There, I was told: For you rich Europeans, the rise in energy and food prices is bearable. For us, however, this means starvation of certain sections of the population and the collapse of the middle class, which will lead to major political upheavals.
And yet, the EU would need Latin America as a strong geopolitical partner right now?
Of course it would. Especially in this tense situation, where democracies are under attack, we certainly need the region as a partner. For the most part, the governments there are in favor of multilateralism and strongly support the United Nations. These are all governments who want to see individual fundamental rights enshrined as principles – especially the new governments of Colombia and Chile. In this context, the EU would be well advised to ensure that we do not lose these states as partners.
What can be done now to strengthen cooperation in these areas?
Above all, the EU must put in place an economic policy that allows Latin American states to pursue a fair partnership on an equal footing. To this end, financial support using trade policy is necessary. But it also means that EU trade policy should not focus primarily on opening up markets.
This could materialize, for example, in the Mercosur agreement. For this to work, however, Latin American states would have to agree on the Mercosur strategy. It is very difficult in a country like Brazil because Brazil has so much economic and political influence in the region.
But the European Union should get the message across: our market is open to you and we are ready to support you financially to bridge the social divides currently exacerbated by the food crisis.
The European Commission says it is already negotiating with Latin America on an equal footing.
Naturally, Latin American partners see things differently. They continue to say that the negotiations are not conducted at ground level. It is precisely the particular interests of certain Member States that make it difficult to implement the Mercosur agreement.
However, as I have said before, it is also necessary that Latin Americans finally agree on the agreement.
Let me address the social divisions you mentioned: how could the EU support Latin American countries in this regard?
First of all financially. Latin American countries need money. Some of them do not have it and therefore depend on the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund. Argentina is a good example: at the end of September, Argentina’s next installment from the International Monetary Fund is due. And this even if Argentina is currently going through a deep crisis. Not only is Argentina struggling with runaway inflation, it actually urgently needs to use its cash to store food reserves in the country to avoid shortages in the fall.
The President of the Republic, Alberto Fernández, also addresses the problem quite clearly, saying that IMF money is needed to prevent the crisis from getting worse in the current situation. Tackling the debt crisis affecting some Latin American countries is an urgent matter. Europe and also the United States of America must lend a hand here. European companies also play a crucial role and could help fill investment gaps.
Equally important in this context is skills and education policy, both at school and university level. Investing in the training of young people is an essential prerequisite for financial investment. The European Union must become even more active in this field.
Your representative study illustrates the opinion of the Latin American population. In many areas – especially when it comes to issues related to values – there is a lot of overlap. At the level of political leadership, however, there are still significant gaps. why is this the case?
If we could base our partnership on the will of the people alone, we would achieve our goal fairly quickly. But the problem often comes from governments, for example in Brazil, where democratically elected President Jair Bolsonaro has displayed a very populist position. He is, so to speak, an Amazon Trump. But this also applies to Venezuela and, to some extent, to governments in Central America.
But overall, the EU currently has a whole series of interlocutors in Latin America – especially since the turn to the left in the last elections – with which it has one thing in common: the realization that the strengthening of cooperation multilateralism is a prerequisite for the defense of democracy.
That’s why I think political leaders in most Latin American countries largely agree with the results of our survey. They want to cooperate with Europe because they believe that the European way to democracy is the right one.
Many analysts are currently warning that a new era of bloc politics could result from the war in Ukraine and ever-closer ties between Russia and China. Is there a danger that China could impose itself as a privileged partner in the region if the EU does not move now?
I think this is less the case in Latin America. China will face greater obstacles than in Asia or Africa. The Chinese strategy is clear. For them, development cooperation is not based on any conditionality. They say: “Here you have money, give us your raw materials. We don’t care what else you do. Of course, this is particularly attractive for dictatorships and authoritarian regimes. More attractive, in any case, than the European Union, which imposes specific requirements for entry into cooperation, such as the rule of law, transparency and respect for fundamental rights.
This is why I think we have an advantage over China, especially in Latin America, because the population recognizes the EU as a privileged partner. But it also means that we must act now.
Where should we act concretely?
Especially in financial and trade policy. And this is the great problem of the EU, and incidentally also the problem of the institutions based in Brussels. They are so obsessed with internal EU issues that they sometimes lack a geopolitical view of the EU’s role. The New Green Deal, for example, is too focused on the inside instead of being an offer to other parts of the world. The European Union must do much better in this regard.
With its infrastructure initiative – the Global Gateway – the EU has also set itself the goal of once again playing a greater role on the international stage. What should happen here?
You would have to answer this question in detail. This is also a country specific issue. When we talk about implementing strategies like Global Gateway, we have to let go of the idea that Latin America is a homogeneous entity.
In countries like Mexico, Argentina and Brazil, the biggest countries in Latin America, I think we need to focus European aid on the following points: What are the investments that help the local population and help in at the same time the country to achieve the sustainable development objectives defined in the 2030 Agenda, that is to say the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?
In Brazil, for example, this would take the form of not investing in highways if we want to combat deforestation of the rainforest, but of creating economic opportunities in regions where people live from logging. Investment should be made in concrete support projects for the establishment or training and education of businesses.
[Edited by Alice Taylor]