Tackling EU and Latin American relations at the WSF

Something new is happening in the movement for global justice. Social movement organisations are turning a critical eye toward growing EU-Latin American ties. This is a departure from the almost exclusive focus on US policies in the region. This trend was evident at the World Social Forum (WSF) both in particular workshops and in general discussion among Forum participants.

March 1, 2005
6 min read

There is a long tradition among people in Latin America of opposition to the policies of IMF, the World Bank, and United States in their region. As the consequences of the WTO/Washington Consensus became evident, and as the synergy between the World Trade Organisation and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) became apparent, a new element was added to the old tradition: a diverse collection of organisations and activists joined together to oppose the proliferating “free trade” agreements in the region. They also engaged in concrete struggles against the transnational corporations all over the continent.

These activists began to see these treaties as tools to maintain the dependency of the ‘developing world’ by means of “free market” policies; the privatisation of public services and knowledge; the commodification of nature; the liberalisation of labour markets; and the enactment of agricultural and environmental policies that undermined the livelihoods of farmers and indigenous peoples–all for the profits of the big transnational corporations.

The movement against these treaties has grown throughout Latin America. Yet even though they address issues such as external debt, ‘corporate-led globalisation’, and re-militarisation, they have been largely focused on multi-lateral issues and especially on US policies in the region such as the FTAA, NAFTA, Plan Puebla Panama and the current set of negotiations with Central America countries and the countries of the Andean Community.

This focus on the US is not just a Latin American phenomenon. Even at the WSF, which brings together people from a wide range of political traditions from around the world, there seems to be an almost exclusive focus on opposition to US policies. US policies are seen, quite rightly, as an ever-growing threat to development, peace, democracy, the environment and co-operation among the peoples and countries in the world. This is especially true since the election to power of George Bush and his Wild West view of the world.

On the other hand, EU policies receive much less attention. A number of factors have contributed to an indulgent and even optimistic perception of EU policies in the Latin American region. First, EU policies are evaluated not in and of themselves, but in comparison with the more militaristic and unilateral US policy. This is partly because the EU seems to embed its foreign policy in democratic values, respect for human rights and sustainable development. Second, the memory of Europe’s positive contribution to democratisation when large regions of LA were under military regimes contributes to a nostalgic idyllic vision of the ‘Old Continent’. Third, the EU’s “Cooperation for Development” programmes play a key role in the social imagery that helps to blur what is really at stake and what are the real European interests in the region: access to markets and natural resources, and fewer environmental and labour regulations for European corporations.

As a result of these factors, mainstream discourse about the EU’s presence in Latin America highlights how co-operation and political dialogue is a good thing for both regions, and how EU-LA political relations can build a multipolar world to counterbalance American imperialism in Latin America. Therefore, when it comes to free trade agreements negotiated or under negotiation, the discussion centres on how the agreements will help access to agricultural markets for poor Latin America, leaving the damaging effects of these agreements to be fixed with social clauses.

Up until now, in both Latin America and the EU, few people seem to be able to look at the EU and see how it has changed and the direction of those changes. A reassessment is badly needed that takes into account the shift to the right within the EU itself; the battle over the future of the Welfare State that is taking place; the Lisbon Strategy; the fight over the New Constitution; and the emergence of the EU based corporations as major global players.

This may be changing, however. It is becoming increasingly clear to a growing number of people in Latin America that the European Union is advancing a series of policies which contain neoliberal components. Therefore to keep focusing the opposition only in the United States is a simplification which could have negative consequences for Latin America.

In fact, the EU is pursuing a strategy which advances by parts to reach the whole. The EU has already signed free trade agreements with Chile and Mexico, which go well beyond the provisions of the WTO. Negotiations are on-going for a new treaty with Mercosur, the embryo common market of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay established by various treaties from 1991, and the key region for Europe in LA, although a deadlock over agricultural provisions has so far blocked an agreement. In addition, negotiations for free trade agreements with the Andean Community and the Central American Common Market are also underway, although if Europe has fewer economic interests in these regions.

Given this reality a number of organisations and activists in both the EU and Latin American have begun to tackle the problem of the EU and European capital in Latin America and to expose the EU’s “WTO Plus” policies in an effort to shift mainstream debate. The first step was taken in Guadalajara, at the ‘Enlazando Alternativas’ encounter, parallel to the Third EU-LA Summit in Guadalajara, 28 May 2004 and since then we have been working on building a political movement powerful enough to counter the increasingly neoliberal approach within EU-LA relations.

It is not a simple task. It is not just a question of European governments pushing their policies; many people within Latin America also consider Europe a good option. For instance, many NGOs are ready to co-operate, and many trade unions have had a very ambiguous attitude. Indeed, there are many progressives and leftists from both continents who still view EU policies with an uncritical eye.

One of the main things that has emerged from this new dialogue is the recognition that we all want good relations between the peoples of Europe and the peoples of LA, and that there is a long tradition of co-operation between unions, social movements and NGOs to build on. The issue is how to build alliances and solidarity from below, rooted in a true co-operation among people and not to legitimate neocolonial and corporate-led agendas, nor to sustain an image of Europe that does not fit with reality.

In this sense the real challenge is how to build internationalism within regions– the North and the South-that is not simply based on the old concept of European solidarity with the popular struggles in Latin America, but one that also confronts global capitalism together. Our starting assumption is that even if Latin America has been one of the main losers of this globalisation process , eventually it will affect Europeans citizens as well. In a world dominated by global institutions and “free market” treaties, workers and communities are pitted against each other in a global race to the bottom. It does not matter whether this process is promoted by the EU or the US. The only way we can reverse this downward spiral is by constructing alternative development strategies based on human need and not the short term profit of global corporations.

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