An exclusive Fair Observer interview with former Austrian Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner.
Trade ties and political exchanges between the European Union (EU) and Latin America are growing. The EU is the second biggest trade partner for Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), and some 2.2 million Latin Americans live in Europe. According to recent data, the EU is the largest foreign investor in the continent.
There are a large number of prominent European politicians and diplomats who have dedicated their careers to boosting economic and political relations between the EU and the Latin America.
One of these politicians is Benita Ferrero-Waldner. She had served five years as the European Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighborhood Policy and was the head of protocol to the secretary general of the United Nations (UN), Boutros Boutros-Ghali in 1995. From 2000-04, she served as Austria’s foreign minister, along with holding the presidency of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in the year 2000. Ferrero-Waldner was named the European Diplomat of the Year by European Voice Magazine in 2007. In 2004, she ran unsuccessfully in the Austrian presidential election.
Along with a number of renowned European and Latin American politicians and diplomats, Ferrero-Waldner is working to promote and enhance bilateral and multilateral ties between EU and LAC countries in the framework of the EU-LAC Foundation, an international institution whose aim is to establish a global initiative for connecting the two regions and sponsoring a bi-regional strategic partnership between them. She is also the president of the EU-LAC Foundation.
In an exclusive interview with Fair Observer, Ferrero-Waldner talks about trade, cultural and political relations between the EU and Latin America, the challenges ahead for the two regions and the achievements made to date.
Kourosh Ziabari: Why is the economic, political and social relationship between the European Union and Latin America and the Caribbean so important that you, along with a number of high-ranking politicians from both regions, decided to establish the EU-LAC Foundation? What goals are you trying to realize in this foundation?
Benita Ferrero-Waldner: Before going any further, I ought to clarify that the EU-LAC Foundation is not the result of individual decisions and does not respond to private interests. The decision to create the foundation was made by the heads of state and government of the European Union, Latin America and the Caribbean at the 2010 summit in Madrid. That is, the EU-LAC Foundation, which I have the honor to be president ad honorem since its inception, does not have a private nature.
Having said that, its aim is to encourage a dynamic relationship between the two regions by fostering an active participation of civil society, and by offering a platform for cooperation and exchange of ideas in areas of mutual interest such as climate change, education, gender or the development of small- and medium-sized enterprises. Our range of action is broad.
Ziabari: You admit that Latin America is suffering from poverty, unemployment and a disturbing lack of food security and education, despite the fact that the region posesses extensive natural resources. Why do you think Latin America and the Caribbean are facing these problems, and how can the European Union help it overcome the economic difficulties behind them?
Ferrero-Waldner: I infer from the assumptions in your question that you have not recently traveled to Latin America to see first-hand the progress this region has experienced. In Latin America, there are certainly places, like anywhere, with relatively important unemployment rates, persistent poverty, weak educational systems and exclusion. But, if you check the United Nations Human Development Index, you will notice that all the countries in Latin America have made significant improvements and that the majority of the population is no longer affected by problems directly caused by lack of development, and those issues are no longer endemic.
The so called “multilatinas” — that is, multinational Latin American enterprises — start to be present not only throughout Latin America, but also in global markets: Europe, Asia or the United States.
The region is advancing steadily and is complying with the Millennium objectives; for instance, just some weeks ago, we received confirmation that it has complied with the one related to hunger. The EU has not only accompanied Latin America in its progress, but will also quadruple funds destined to this region in years ahead. These will not be so much oriented to development aid, which is relatively less necessary, but rather toward technical cooperation, including institutional strengthening, governance, vocational training and policies to tackle inequality.
Ziabari: The European Union is Latin America’s largest foreign financier, having invested some €385 billion in the continent in 2010. The figure is larger than the EU’s foreign direct investment in Russia, China and India combined. Why does an integrated Europe attach so much importance to economic relations with Latin America and the Caribbean?
Ferrero-Waldner: European enterprises have a long tradition in Latin America and the Caribbean, and not only because these two regions share strong historical and cultural links — and even family bonds. European enterprises have always looked for new business opportunities beyond their borders. But it was generally during the 1990s that European business took advantage of the processes of privatization and economic liberalization in Latin America. What the “integrated” Europe, as you call it, has done so far is to promote the aforementioned exchanges through agreements that provide the irreplaceable stimulus of a predictable environment.
But lately we are experiencing an important phenomenon in the opposite direction. The so called “multilatinas” — that is, multinational Latin American enterprises — start to be present not only throughout Latin America, but also in global markets: Europe, Asia or the United States. Some of the widely-known multinationals are, for example, the Mexican Pemex and Cemex, the Brazilian Embraer or Petrobras, and the Venezuelan Bank Banesco. Latin American direct investment in Europe is gaining more and more importance. I will give you an example: The Mexican company Nemak, a world leader in aluminum components with an annual revenue of $4.3 billion, already has production plants in Germany, Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Austria, Spain and Hungary, providing among other products such as engine components to the European automobile industry.
Ziabari: What’s your assessment of the state of relations between the EU and Brazil – the largest Latin American nation? The EU is Brazil’s biggesttrade partner, and the country is the European bloc’s tenth trade partner, accounting for 2.2% of the EU’s total trade. How important is it for the EU to foster its trade, cultural and political relations with Brazil?
Ferrero-Waldner: The relationship with Brazil is very key, and reflects the importance this country has on its own in the region, and its role in the world. In economic terms, Brazil has been the chosen country by many European enterprises to access Latin American markets, or even the United States. This is especially evident when it comes to German enterprises. In Brazil, particularly in Sao Paulo, there are over 1,200 German companies representing the biggest concentration of German enterprises outside Germany.
However, other countries such as Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Chile or Peru are also outstanding partners in Latin America. European relationships are not restricted to certain countries. Indeed, Mexico, Colombia, Chile and Peru, as well as other countries like Costa Rica, have created the Pacific Alliance — the most dynamic regional integration.
Ziabari: Latin American and Caribbean nations are mostly categorized as members of the Global South, and seen as countries that are not aligned to major world powers. Several Latin American nations, including Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Peru and Venezuela, are members of the Non-Aligned Movement, which is essentially opposed to the current world order and tends to distance itself from policies of the West. In this light, has the European Union been able to bridge the possible ideological gaps between Latin America and Europe, and reach out to the people in these countries who sometimes garner strong anti-Western sentiments as a result of their historical experiences — such as coups and revolutions?
Ferrero-Waldner: Your assertion evokes a Cold War context, a period that has already been surpassed. The notion of non-alignment in itself alludes to the exception of alignment in the East-West confrontation during the Cold War. As you are aware, that confrontation ended and is symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Latin America is a region with the highest rate of urbanization in the planet. Today, its urban population represents over 82% of the total and this figure is expected to reach 90% by 2050.
Today, we have different challenges. Some can and should be dealt with in a national context, while others require policy coordination at a regional level. However, there are also global challenges that, due to their global nature, require global action and a cooperative spirit to successfully confront them. It is no longer the case of non-alignment or NATO membership being an obstacle for cooperative action. On the contrary, some countries you have mentioned are actively working with the EU in promoting their interest and for mutual benefit.
Ziabari: Latin America is facing a serious threat of excessive population growth. Between 1950 and 2000, the continent population more thandoubled from 175 million to 515 million and, today, that figure stands at about 604 million. How should the regional countries address this concern? Is the European Union ready to offer its experience to LAC countries and help them tackle the population growth issue?
Ferrero-Waldner: I do not support that analysis at all. The population in Latin America is growing, but as a result of the extraordinary — and in fact very successful — struggle to reduce the death rate. Even so, population density in these countries, including Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela, is lower than Iran. I would say population problems in Latin America and the Caribbean have more to do with the rural exodus.
Latin America is a region with the highest rate of urbanization in the planet. Today, its urban population represents over 82% of the total and this figure is expected to reach 90% by 2050. Mexico City, Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires are mega-cities, and Bogota and Lima will become mega-cities very soon. Obviously, this entails administrative and structural challenges. But also realize that urban life and the exponential growth of the middle-classes in Latin America is in normal circumstances associated to reduced fertility rates.
Ziabari: From 2007-13, the European Union offered€300 billion in financial assistance to Latin American and Caribbean nations. How is this monetary aid being spent, and which countries are the major recipients of the assistance in the region? What kind of mutual benefit does such financial assistance have for the European Union?
Ferrero-Waldner: As you know, I am no longer the commissioner, so I could not confirm or deny the figure that you suggest. However, from my experience, cooperation funds toward Latin America and the Caribbean have traditionally been allocated to democracy, peace and stability, education, good governance, the fight against illicit drugs, social cohesion and growth. The main recipients of assistance have been the Caribbean Islands, some Central American countries and a nation in South America.
Ziabari: According to recent statistics, today, some 2.2 million Latin Americans live inEurope, mostly in Spain, Portugal and Italy. What opportunities and threats can the emigration of Latin American citizens to Europe entail for an integrated EU? We know that Latin American nations have close cultural and lingual affinities with Portugal and Spain. Is this reason why there is a growing tendency on the part of Latin American citizens to move to Europe, and especially these two countries?
This implies that we all have a common goal in the fight against global warming, whose effects — experts warn — can be devastating, not only for Latin America but for others, mainly the small island states, as well.
Ferrero-Waldner: Language and other cultural affinities have played a role for millions of Latin Americans who have decided to look for new opportunities in Europe. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Spain and Portugal became the main recipients of Latin American migration. However, the situation seems to have reversed as a consequence of the economic crisis. Nowadays, it is young Spanish and Portuguese citizens who travel to Latin America to look for job and business opportunities, as occurred in the past when Latin America and other regions received waves of migration originating in Europe.
Ziabari: In 2008, the European Commission launched the EUROCLIMA joint program during the Fifth EU-Latin American and the Caribbean Summit to address the concern of climate change. It is said that Latin American and Caribbean nations are suffering a great deal from global warming and its consequences, especially given that agriculture and forestry are among the major propellers of Latin America’s economy. Is this program making progress six years after being introduced? What is your assessment of the role EU countries can play in solving the concerns rising from climate change and global warming in Latin America?
Ferrero-Waldner: Climate change is a truly global problem and that is the reason why the UN pursues a global agreement within the framework of a shared and differentiated responsibility. This implies that we all have a common goal in the fight against global warming, whose effects — experts warn — can be devastating, not only for Latin America but for others, mainly the small island states, as well. We need to make a collective effort if we want to succeed in avoiding raising temperatures and to adapt to the new circumstances. Adapting to the effects that are deriving from climate change are beyond the capacity of individual countries, and that is why it is so important for all to reach an agreement no later than December 2015.
Ziabari: You served four years as the Austrian foreign minister, and was then appointed the European Commissioner for Trade and European Neighborhood Policy in 2004 and remained in that position for five years. Why did you decide to dedicate the rest of your political career to strengthening the EU-Latin America relations? Why is it so important for you to consolidate EU-LAC relations that you founded the EU-LAC Foundation and are currently speaking and giving public lectures solely on this issue?
Ferrero-Waldner: First I was working as Commissioner for External Relation and Neighborhood Policy until November 2009, when I became Commissioner for Trade and Neighborhood Policy.
Well, one never knows what life brings us but, yes, I am delighted to currently serve as the president of the EU-LAC Foundation. Why? Because I am a devoted European and feel huge enthusiasm about Latin America and the Caribbean, a region I was always in contact with when I worked as European Commissioner; a region I have visited numerous times; and where I feel at home. As I told you at the beginning of this interview, both regions share a number of values, a social welfare model and aim at a social development in which I believe. And, because I am sure Europe needs Latin America and vice-versa; a strategic partnership that guides both regions will make them stronger in a new world order.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.