The third EU-CELAC summit in Brussels, to which over 30 leaders from Caribbean and Latin American nations were invited, was the first such meeting in eight years. It comes as the EU turns away from Russia and China as go-to trading partners and seeks to diversify its suppliers.

On Monday, many leaders pledged to finalise the stalled free trade agreement between the EU and the Mercosur trading bloc of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay by the end of the year, despite unresolved concerns on environmental protection and unfair competition.

Brussels has its eye on critical raw materials naturally occurring in Latin America that are in high demand in the EU and could help the bloc’s transition away from fossil fuels, towards a more climate-friendly industry.

In other developments, some Caribbean and Latin American leaders have refrained from imposing far-reaching sanctions on Russia. They repeatedly emphasised the consequences of the war for global food and energy prices and called for peace talks.

New push for EU-Mercosur free trade deal

A free trade agreement between the EU and the Mercosur states got a new push on Monday as leaders committed to swiftly finalising the long-stalled deal. The deal had been on hold since the conclusion of negotiations in 2019.

Some EU member states had requested an addendum to the deal on climate, the environment, and human rights after deforestation in Latin America skyrocketed. “Our ambition is to settle any remaining differences as soon as possible so that we can conclude this agreement,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said.

Whether the deal, under which one of the largest free trade areas with more than 700 million inhabitants could be created, will be finalised by the end of year remains unclear.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar voiced opposition to the pending trade accord without new provisions on climate protection and deforestation. France, Germany and the Netherlands have expressed similar concerns in the past. The Austrian parliament voted in 2019 in a binding ballot against the trade deal over environmental and competition concerns.

A balanced agreement between Mercosur and the European Union, which we intend to conclude this year, will open new horizons.

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, President of Brazil

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva stressed the importance of public procurement between the Mercosur trade bloc and the EU. “A balanced agreement between Mercosur and the European Union, which we intend to conclude this year, will open new horizons,” Lula added. Argentina’s President Alberto Fernández also called for a balance in relations between the two continents, because otherwise “it stops being an agreement and starts to be a joke”.

In May, environmental activists climbed the EU Council building in Brussels to protest against the Mercosur trade deal. They held up banners reading ‘Stop EU-Mercosur’. The environmentalists announced on Twitter: “This agreement is a disaster for nature, farmers and human rights.” The EU has been in talks on an agreement with Mercosur since 1999. Obstacles to an agreement include demands for the Amazon rainforest to be protected from deforestation for livestock-keeping and also further development of agriculture to be halted.

De-couple from China, re-couple with CELAC

To demonstrate Brussels’ renewed interest in the region, the EU has committed to spending over 45 billion euros by 2027 in investment plans for partners in South America and the Caribbean. This comes as part of the bloc’s so-called Global Gateway strategy, an initiative to link the bloc to the rest of the world and to rival China’s spending in global infrastructure.

The EU and its investment partners agreed to prioritise sectors from “clean energy and critical raw materials to health and education“, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Monday. Critical raw materials naturally occurring in Latin America are in high demand in the EU for the bloc’s transition away from fossil fuels and towards a more climate-friendly industry. On the sidelines of the summit, Chile and the European Commission signed a partnership agreement to strengthen cooperation on the provision of raw materials to Europe.

More than 135 projects on green and digital transition on both sides of the Atlantic are “already in the pipeline”, according to von der Leyen. Other plans include an expansion of telecommunication networks in the Amazon in Brazil, 5G network development in Jamaica, the electrification of public transport in Costa Rica and investments in lithium mines in Argentina and Chile.

Slovenian Foreign Minister Tanja Fajon, standing in for Prime Minister Robert Golob, said she would aspire for more cooperation, including in the fight against climate change and AI. She pointed out the role of the Slovenian UNESCO Centre for Artificial Intelligence, which could become operational by the end of the year.

While Croatia’s interests in relations with the CELAC countries are in line with the EU’s, Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković cited the large number of Croatian diaspora in that part of the world as another motive for cooperation. “To understand our position, it is important to keep in mind that, according to the estimates of our various departments, as many as 650,000 Croats live in the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean,” Plenković said.

Besides discussing potentials for strengthened economic cooperation, another key item on the summit’s agenda was the EU member states’ desire to show solidarity with war-torn Ukraine.

EU-CELAC summit. Photo: Dario Pignatelli/European Council/dpa

Russia’s allies deal blow to EUs Ukraine efforts

European and CELAC leaders failed to agree on a statement holding Russia to account for the war in Ukraine, highlighting their differences over the crisis. In fact, the discrepancies had already begun prior to the summit, following Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s invitation to his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky. Several Latin American countries vetoed his presence at the event, as Zelensky himself revealed.

The joint communique issued after the summit concluded expressed “deep concern” about the conflict but contained no mention of Russia. The EU-27 and 32 out of the 33 CELAC supported the conclusions. Nicaragua did not back the final wording.

Diplomats said Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela had opposed language criticising Russia, and other countries – while agreeing to support Ukraine’s sovereignty – had stressed that different crises and conflicts were also worthy of the world’s attention.

“We cannot make this summit between the European Union and CELAC be a summit on Ukraine,” said Ralph Gonsalves, CELAC president and Prime Minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. “But clearly Ukraine is a matter of great importance to Europe and the world – other conflicts too,” he said, referring to the crisis in Haiti, the Palestinian struggle for statehood and various wars in Africa as deserving of European attention.

Here in Europe it’s hard to imagine, but in Latin America, Russia is presented as a peaceful country that has been attacked by NATO.

Mateusz Morawiecki, Prime Minister of Poland

Poland’s Mateusz Morawiecki was blunt, arguing that countries which once suffered from European colonialism should recognise that Russia is now an imperialist threat. “Here in Europe it’s hard to imagine, but in Latin America, Russia is presented as a peaceful country that has been attacked by NATO,” he said.

As the leaders met in Brussels, Russia refused to extend a deal to allow Ukrainian grain exports through the Black Sea, drawing a warning from the UN that millions of the world’s poorest would “pay the price”.

On the subject of peace, during the summit plenary session, a warning also came from Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. “We must give words the right meaning they have: the word peace cannot be confused with the word invasion. If anyone thinks they can confuse these two words they do not realise that a world in which international law no longer exists will never be a world of peace,“ she warned.

Other topics discussed at the summit, which will now take place every two years, included the long-term impacts of slavery. In the final declaration all leaders “acknowledge and profoundly regret the untold suffering inflicted on millions of men, women and children as a result of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.”

This article is published weekly. The content is based on news by agencies participating in the enr.