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EU and Latin American Leaders Hold a Summit Hoping to Rekindle a Long-lost Relationship

Leaders from the European Union and Latin America gingerly hugged and huddled at a major two-day summit of long-lost relatives Monday. Whether it will be a joyful reunion of friends remains to be seen.

Their last such encounter was eight years ago. Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic and Brazil’s three-year departure from the 33-nation Community of Latin American and Caribbean States — or CELAC — had made the Atlantic Ocean separating the two sides seem wider.

“The world has certainly changed during that time,” said EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. “So we need our close friends to be at our side in these uncertain times.” Yet, uncertainty still swirled around the summit itself.

Division ranging from Russia’s war in Ukraine to trade, deforestation and slavery reparations has given extra spice to a meeting that will be considered a success if the participants agree to meet more frequently.

“We have to find a language of consensus,” Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, which holds the CELAC presidency. EU officials equally highlighted the struggle to find even the blandest wording that could unite the 60 nations in one statement.

“I know that there are still some ongoing discussions,” acknowledged EU Council President Charles Michel.

It was clear it was tough to break the ice after years of long-distance relations.

The 27-nation EU took some of the blame for the estrangement.

“We didn’t pay enough attention,” said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell. “And now we have to react and take into account the new geopolitical scenario with the emergence of China and the new role of Russia.”

Several EU nations have ties to the Americas going back centuries and that were long based on exploitative colonialism and slavery. And even since the nations wrested independence from European powers, in some cases as long as 200 years ago, trade was often seen as a one-way street where Europeans stood to benefit first and foremost.

In the 21st century though, China has steadily been pushing its influence and trade outreach deep into Latin America, and the EU acknowledges it has a geo-strategic battle on its hands.

In talks early Monday with Brazil President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, von der Leyen stressed how important it was to “de-risk” their economies, which is EU code-speak for taking distance from Beijing for fear the Chinese could become more powerful as investors as to control nations from afar.

Lula, for his part, said that as Brazil develops, “we want to share that intense economic activity with our partners in the EU.” The balance in Latin America, however, is shifting.

“A lot of European companies have lost ground,” said Parsifal D’Sola, executive director of the Center of Chinese-Latin American Investigations.

The EU has called China a “systemic rival” for four years, and has seen Beijing rapidly encroach on Europe’s age-old interests in Africa, Central America and South America. D’Sola now warns that China’s flexibility and heavy investment in a variety of sectors will make it difficult to truly pull influence away from Beijing in the way that EU nations may desire.

Still, there is no overstating Europe’s ongoing clout in Latin America, especially when it comes to the economy. The latest figures show that annual trade between the two blocs has increased by 39 percent over the past decade to 369 billion euros ($414 billion). EU investment in the region stood at 693 billion euros ($777 billion), a 45 percent increase over the past decade. The EU already has trade deals with 27 of the 33 CELAC nations.

It is also why the elephant in the room will be the huge EU-Mercosur trade agreement between the EU bloc and Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, which has foundered for five years just short of full ratification.

Unlock that deal, and shared prosperity would be the reward for all involved, insisted von der Leyen. “All of this is within reach if we get the Mercosur, EU agreement across the finishing line. Our ambition is to settle any remaining differences as soon as possible.”

Several EU nations have powerful farm lobbies that seek to keep competition from beef producing nations like Brazil and Argentina at bay. And after then Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro allowed Amazon deforestation to surge to a 15-year high, EU nations have been insisting on tougher environmental standards. Lula called the threat of EU sanctions “unacceptable.”

EU officials were at pains to insist that sanctions on countries that fail to comply with the 2015 international climate Paris Agreement weren’t on the table this week and lauded Lula’s efforts to turn back rampant deforestation.

“Brazil will meet its climate commitments,” insisted Lula.

Russia and the war in Ukraine is now also a point of division instead of a natural unifier. CELAC has member nations like Cuba and Venezuela, whose views on Russia constrast with just about every EU nation. There was initially an expectation that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy would address the summit. That idea was shelved.

Such issues have seriously complicated drafting a joint summit statement, which was long expected to be a long and detailed text, but is now quickly turning into a “shorthand declaration,” a senior EU official involved in the drafting said. He spoke on condition of anonymity since talks were ongoing.

Source : PBS