Online Commentary

April 19, 2022

War In Ukraine Impacts Relations Between Latin America and the European Union

One of the future challenges for Latin America is to position itself in this new geopolitical context. Both alignment and non-alignment will have a cost.

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Ukraine's Ambassador to Mexico Oksana Dramaretska, accompanied by the ambassador of the European Union in Mexico, Gautier Mignot speaks during a press conference about the start of Russia s military attacks on Ukraine, at the Embassy of Ukraine in Mexico.
Ukraine's Ambassador to Mexico Oksana Dramaretska, accompanied by the ambassador of the European Union in Mexico, Gautier Mignot speaks during a press conference about the start of Russia s military attacks on Ukraine, at the Embassy of Ukraine in Mexico.
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The Russian invasion of Ukraine is bringing political and economic consequences for Europe and Latin America. Millions of Ukrainians, mostly women and children, have fled their country seeking protection in the European Union (EU) countries. Besides, international commodity prices have soared, especially for oil and natural gas, due to disruptions caused by the war and sanctions against Russia, which is disrupting global trade and supply chains. In this framework, what is the place for Latin America in the new EU geopolitical scenario?

The economic and political impacts of the war

Russia and Ukraine are the main producers of raw materials, and disruptions have also caused the cost of food to rise with wheat prices, for which Ukraine and Russia account for 30% of global exports, reaching record levels.

On the other hand, the Russian invasion has strengthened NATO and the EU since a common enemy is the best incentive to strengthen alliances. One could even say that the EU has found a new sense of mission and no longer wants to limit itself to being a normative power. In a speech to the European Parliament on March 1, EU High Representative Josep Borrell stated that the EU has to become a “hard power”, which means “having the power to coerce”.

Sanctions against Russia will lead to a dissociation between Russia and the EU. The EU will reduce its energy dependence on Russia, accelerate the energy transition to renewable energy and cease the export of sensitive technology and goods. In his speech, Borrell said, “I believe this is the moment when geopolitical Europe is being born.”

What is Latin America’s place in the EU’s new geopolitical scenario?

In its new “Strategic Compass for Security and Defense” approved at the end of March, the European Union mentions the specific security and defense dialogue with Colombia and Chile, and intends to further promote the participation of Latin American countries in the EU’s security and defense efforts.

In addition, most Latin American governments have taken a clear stance on Russian aggression. But from the European perspective there is also inconsistency and inconstancy in the positioning of governments in Latin America and the Caribbean.

On March 2, 141 of the 193 UN member states voted in the General Assembly in favor of a resolution condemning Russia’s invasion and calling for its immediate withdrawal. The resolution was supported by most countries, with only Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and El Salvador abstaining. Venezuela criticized the resolution, but could not vote because it had not paid its contributions to the UN.

On March 24, the Latin American vote on a UN resolution on the humanitarian consequences of the aggression against Ukraine was identical. And a day later, the Organization of American States (OAS) adopted a resolution on Ukraine calling on the Russian Federation to immediately withdraw all its military forces. Of the 34 active members of the OAS, 28 voted in favor, none against and five abstained, including Brazil (plus Bolivia, El Salvador, Honduras, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines).

The Latin American and Caribbean vote was even more divided when on April 7 the UN General Assembly decided to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council following allegations of serious human rights violations in Ukraine. The majority (18 governments) voted in favor, 3 against (Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua) and 9 abstained, including Brazil, El Salvador, and Mexico.

This shows that, unlike the EU where in all the votes on Ukraine there was no vote against or abstention, in Latin America and the Caribbean there is no common position. Not a single Latin American regional organization has issued a statement on the war. It would even be difficult to find a joint statement on the Russian invasion of Ukraine signed by all countries at an EU-CELAC Summit or a Summit of the Americas.

Shared values between Latin America and the EU

In terms of likeability and attractiveness as a development model, Russia lags far behind the EU and the U.S., according to a Latinobarómetro survey of 10 countries in the region last September. In fact, almost half of those interviewed chose Europe as the region with which their country would be best placed to link up.

In a conflict that is also about common values and the shaping of the international order, the EU should use its sympathy bonus in Latin America. The economic consequences of the war in Ukraine can be the starting point for closer and broader economic relations between the EU and Latin America.

This is an opportunity to give new impetus to the stalled Mercosur-EU agreement. In some areas such as wheat or natural gas, Mercosur countries could compensate -only to a limited extent and in the medium term- for the loss of supplies from Russia and Ukraine. Mercosur and other Latin American countries (such as Chile in the production of green hydrogen) can also become important partners of the EU in the development and production of green energy.

The signing of the EU-Mercosur agreement would be a clear signal from both sides to expand their cooperation and stabilize the international economic order. However, this presupposes that the EU sets clear geostrategic priorities. Climate diplomacy is important, but strengthening the EU’s geopolitical and geoeconomical position vis-à-vis Russia (and China) is more important at the moment.

The EU should not just “talk” about Latin America as a strategic partner. In the context of the current threat to Europe, the EU should also “make” Latin America a strategic partner. But Latin American governments will also have to position themselves more clearly. In the past, there has been much talk of a community of values between Europe and Latin America. Now it is time to lay the cards on the table to see to what extent this community of values really exists.

In Latin America, the idea of active non-alignment in international politics has been widespread and discussed. The question arises whether this position is realistic in the current global political scenario. What the United States and the EU expect is active alignment. Therefore, one of the future challenges for Latin America is to position itself in this new geopolitical context. Both alignment and non-alignment will have a cost.