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The French “no” and the future of EU-Mercosul relations’

Rodrigo Cintra

Leadership and commitment are two of the main characteristics needed for a sustainable international action, especially in the case of regional integration. Leadership implies assuming all responsibilities from actions and finding the appropriate ways to implement them. Commitment implies defending your positions in public and while gathering the required political and popular support.

Sometimes what is perceived is a distance of positions from the governments regarding its populations. Generally, it happens because of the peculiar agendas that each involved actor – government and population – has as more important at a given moment. A good leader has to achieve equilibrium between both agendas, observing the main questions raised by its populations and at the same time must be able to discuss other equally important points that are out of reach of daily life.

The recent position taken by French and the Dutch population regarding the European Constitution mirrors how the above mentioned distance between leaders and population can achieve a peak. While French president Jacques Chirac reaffirmed the need of approval of the Constitution, part of the French population was against the format that has been followed for the European Union’s construction, more focused in governmental decisions than popular direct participation.

We can say that this dissociation is a European problem and more specifically a French problem. However the consequences of that position, taking into account the need Europe is feeling to reform itself, means this will have a strong impact in the Union’s relations with other regions of the world, especially with Mercosul.

If we can say that regional blocks are one of the marks of the contemporary international system, we have to say that blocks must not only be in charge of its internal problems, but also of its relations with other global actors. Agreements between regional entities and other negotiations in the multilateral system are increasingly important to foster the consolidation of norms and international practices, which help to build a better regulated world system, allowing for an easier convergence between the interests of developing and developed countries.

The question of leadership in a regional integration process assumes a crucial importance in inter-regional negotiations, because the lower the limitations imposed by internal factors, the higher will be the leader’s capacity to influence and progress towards an agreement.

From Mercosul’s perspective, the present position taken by Europe represents a vacuum in leadership, or even a threat to the capacity of the European Union to act like a united block.  Europe’s leaders now will focus its energy on solving internal problems, especially the ones linked to the regional democratic deficit, trying to acquire popular legitimacy towards European Union’s institutions, and this might decrease Europe’s’ capacity of international negotiation.

On the other hand, Mercosul always was presented like an institutionalised block with a low stimulus to popular participation. More than a solid and gradual political and economic construction, Mercosul is perceived by its population as an instrument to pursue specific political interests of each member-state.

At the same time that European Union is going through a moment of “turning itself to the inside”, Mercosul is not capable to “turn itself to the outside”. Constant misunderstandings between members regarding questions that should be easily solved by lower-ranking institutions show the difficulty of Mercosul’s members to obtain or determined and united strategy for international action.

Following this scenario, negotiations between European Union and Mercosul – paralyzed since October – should be suspended in practical terms until a new agenda can be shaped. At the same time, Latin-American interests are more and more involved with agriculture and probably will become a sine qua non issue for Latin-American countries in future negotiations.

As agriculture is also a sensible point for the members of the European Union, with special highlight for the case of France, it will become harder, at least in the short run, for European rulers to justify a deeper commitment towards Mercosul. The cooperative agenda – at least in the rhetorical terms – that was the mark of bi-regional relations should pass for a more conflictive phase, in which the differences between blocks will be shown as increasingly strong.

Seeking the alternatives to overcome this situation is crucial, not only for the future of bi-regional relations but especially for the future framework standards of regional integration that shape the present international reality.

This article is part of a partnership between Newropeans Magazine (Europe) and Revista Autor (Brazil) devoted to build a mutual comprehension of each region’s realities. The main task in this partnership is to promote and contrast perceptions of and from Europe and Latin America.