EU and Latin American leaders hold a summit hoping to rekindle relationship with long-lost friends

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European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, right, greets Brazil's President Luiz Incio Lula da Silva prior to a meeting at EU headquarters in Brussels, Monday, July 17, 2023. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)

BRUSSELS – Leaders from the European Union and Latin America gingerly hugged and huddled at the opening of their first summit of long-lost relatives in eight years. Monday's opening session didn't turn into a joyful reunion of long-lost friends.

Latin American and Caribbean leaders brought century-old recriminations over colonialism and slavery across the Atlantic to the EU's headquarters in Brussels, and added current-day complaints that Europe still doesn't get how to treat former colonies as equal partners in the 21st century.

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“Most of Europe was, and still is, overwhelmingly the lopsided beneficiary in a relationship in which our Latin America, and our Caribbean, have been and are unequally yoked,” said St. Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, who holds the presidency of the 33-nation Community of Latin American and Caribbean States.

European leaders acknowledged time and again that the exploitation of old had been fundamentally wrong, yet insisted that the challenges of today can only be tackled effectively when EU and Latin American countries do so together.

“You have to realize that in the past, we didn’t pick up the phone when they had issues. So there is very serious irritation among a great many countries,“ Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said. “That we get this back in our face now is also proof that we, as Europe, sometimes acted a bit arrogantly.”

The result was that long-stalled trade agreements — like a huge EU-Mercosur deal — will likely be no closer to resolution when the leaders wrap up their summit Tuesday. And despite weeks and months of preparation, a joint final statement was still in limbo less than a day before the closing of the meeting, highlighted by a dispute over whether to include a condemnation of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

If something was on show, it was Central and South America's increased confidence, boosted by a huge injection of funds from China and the knowledge that their critical raw materials will become ever more vital as the EU seeks to end an excessive reliance on Beijing's rare mineral resources.

Their last such encounter was in 2015, and since then the COVID-19 pandemic and Brazil's three-year departure from the 33-nation CELAC group had made the Atlantic Ocean separating the two sides seem wider.

That view could not be dispelled despite pledges of friendship and EU commitments to spend 45 billion euros ($51 billion) on the partnerships over the next four years.

Instead, divisions ranging from Russia's war in Ukraine to trade anddeforestation gave extra spice to a meeting that will be considered a success simply if the participants agree to meet more frequently.

Problems over including a reference to Russia in the summit statement were especially painful. The EU repeats its unwavering support for Ukraine almost daily. CELAC has member nations like Cuba and Venezuela whose views on Russia contrast with just about every EU nation and others that are neutrals in the war and point out other global conflicts that get less attention.

While the EU pushes for strong words on the war, Gonsalves said that “this summit ought not to become another unhelpful battleground for discourses on this matter, which has been and continues to be addressed in other, more relevant fora.”

The Netherlands, with France, Spain and Portugal, are EU nations with 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, trade has often been seen as a one-way street on which Europeans benefitted first and foremost.

In the 21st century, 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.

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

Still, there is no overstating Europe's clout in Latin America, especially when it comes to the economy. Annual trade between the two blocs has increased 39% over the past decade to 369 billion euros ($414 billion). EU investment in the region stood at 693 billion euros ($777 billion), a 45% 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 is 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, von der Leyen said. “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.

“The conclusion of the Mercosur-European Union Agreement is a priority and must be based on mutual trust, not threats," said Brazil's current president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. "The defense of environmental values, which we all share, cannot be an excuse for protectionism.”


Associated Press journalists Megan Janetsky in Mexico City, David Biller and Eléonore Hughes in Rio de Janeiro and Angela Charlton in Brussels contributed to this report.

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