Virtual meeting of Presidents of the Southern Common Market
On March 26, 2021, the Argentine head of state, Alberto Fernández, who currently holds the Pro Tempore Presidency (PPT) of the Southern Common Market (Mercosur), inaugurated the meeting of presidents of the bloc whose referential framework was the commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Asunción, an agreement that, in 1991, gave rise to the largest customs union in our region. The leaders of the States parties also participated in this virtual meeting: Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, as well as the associated States: Bolivia and Chile. Let us remember that Venezuela, a country that joined Mercosur in 2012 as a full member, has been suspended since December 2016, a decision that was ratified by a Joint Declaration of the Foreign Ministers of the rest of the States Parties signed in the city of Sao Paulo on August 5, 2017.
During his opening speech, Fernández proposed the creation of an Observatory of Democratic Quality; an Observatory for the Prevention of Gender Violence; and an Environmental Observatory, to address these important issues jointly in Mercosur. Likewise, the Mercosur PPT highlighted the work of PARLASUR, a parliament that was established in 2006 and forms “an institutional reality that reflects the pluralism and diversities of the region”. It did the same with the Mercosur Citizenship Statute, which represents “a sample of what we have been building so that the common identity we have is strengthened and continues to deepen”.
Regarding economic issues, the Argentine head of state said that Mercosur “has one of the most dynamic trade agendas on the planet”, since the bloc maintains active negotiations with 36 counterparts: the European Union, the European Free Trade Association, Canada, Korea, Singapore, Lebanon and Israel, as well as exploratory dialogues with Vietnam and Indonesia. Fernández added: “We have made negotiating proposals to our partners in Central America and the Dominican Republic. We are holding talks with India and we aspire to start a dialogue with the Eurasian Economic Union and design an insertion strategy in Africa.”
Intra-bloc tensions: Mercosur easing
One of the greatest pressures that the Argentine Republic receives from the active member states of the bloc has to do with the demand to “make Mercosur more flexible”. This is to eliminate the rule according to which all negotiations of the bloc countries must count with the consent of all the States parties, thus, with the elimination of the consensus rule, also called “veto power”, each Mercosur country will be able to negotiate unilaterally, regardless of how this affects the other members of the bloc economically. Additionally, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay demand from the Argentine government a reduction of the Common External Tariff (AEC).
In regard these issues, which caused the only points of tension in the Mercosur PPT meeting, President Alberto Fernández stated: “Argentina has been pragmatic in its proposals for the revision of an AEC that, after 25 years, has gone through various changes, adapting to the interests of the partners. However, we do not believe that a partial and linear reduction of the Common External Tariff for the entire tariff universe is the best instrument in the face of the possibility of new agreements with other countries”. The next meeting to address this issue will be held in just about a month, on April 22, 2021.
Statement by the President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro
After showing solidarity with the families affected by the coronavirus pandemic, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said: “We defend the modernization of the bloc with the update of the common external tariff as a central part of the process of recovering our dynamism”. He highlighted the importance of the extraordinary meeting that the foreign ministers will hold in April to “make decisions on the agenda and modalities of the external negotiations of Mercosur and on the revision of the common external tariff proposed by Brazil.”
Bolsonaro said that “there is a wide margin to deepen regional integration through the reduction of tariff barriers and the incorporation of sectors that are still outside of intra-bloc trade. We need to be part of the fourth industrial revolution to occupy a place in the world of the great international economic currents. To do this, we must redouble our efforts in external negotiations, we want quick results, focus our efforts and attract foreign investments that generate employment and income. At the Mercosur level, we need to bridge the gaps in the automotive and sugar sectors and realign current regulations with best practices and international standards.”
Intervention by the President of Paraguay, Mario Abdo Benítez
The Paraguayan president highlighted in his speech that Mercosur has from its birth been a tool at the service of democracy, an instrument of union and stability in the region. “We cannot allow ideologies to contaminate this process. Let’s be realistic, let’s be pragmatic and give our nations the greatest tool for regional integration and development”, said Abdo Benitez. He then called for the reduction of the common external tariff, since “that the current design of the integration process requires external negotiations adopted in a joint and coordinated manner” should not imply that this is a “barrier to the development of our economy”.
Finally, the Paraguayan president issued warning about the situation that humanity is going through, “one of the hardest tests in its history”, due to Covid19: “One year after the arrival of the pandemic, we are in a critical stage that undermines the foundations of our society. (…) I would like to emphasize the importance of having a firm and united position to obtain vaccines against the coronavirus. The supply of vaccines to our region is negligible, much lower than that of other parts of the world, which have monopolized world production. Strengthening Mercosur is essential” to avoid situations like this, he added.
Statement by the President of Uruguay, Luis Lacalle Pou
Although Bolsonaro hinted at the Argentine president when he said that the Mercosur consensus rule could not become a permanent veto on the development of the bloc, it was the Uruguayan president who had the harshest speech of all towards Fernández. Lacalle claimed: “We have to advance in negotiations with other blocs. We are not satisfied. We believe that it is very good to initiate dialogues, but sitting at a table without reaching agreements generates frustration. The agreement with the European bloc. There we have a difficulty. Work has been done for many years and there is still a long way to go. A path that generates some skepticism. And we have to open up that process to know if we are going to come to fruition.”
Lacalle continued: “There are other blocks in the world that in the last 30 years have generated wealth, there are markets in which Mercosur has not yet made sufficient progress: I am basically talking about Asia, there many of our products do not compete equally. conditions with other countries and with other blocs that have agreements with Asian countries. It is time to move forward together. Obviously, Mercosur weighs, its activity and its production weigh on the international scene. What should not be and what cannot be is a burden. We are not willing to make it a corset in which Uruguay cannot move.”
Alberto Fernández responded saying: “I would like to keep the expression of most of all of us, which is the expression of continuing to find mechanisms to move forward, mechanisms of consensus and that fundamentally we can all feel like brothers. If we have become something else, a burden, I am sorry. The truth is that we didn’t want to be a burden to anyone. Because in addition, a load is something that makes one get thrown from a boat and the easiest thing is to get off the boat, if that load weighs a lot, so what I emphasize is that we finish with those ideas that help so little to unity at a time where unity is so important to us”. And he reaffirmed: “We don’t want to be anyone’s burden. If we are a drag, let them take another ship. But we are nobody’s burden … For me it is an honor to be part of Mercosur, it is an honor to be working together with you. I have the same hope that the founders of Mercosur had in being able to move forward and work together.”
Bilateral altercation and interventions by Bolivia and Chile
The day before the Mercosur meeting, the president of Chile, Sebastián Piñera, made a statement in an interview for CNN about the arrest of Jeanine Áñez in Bolivia, saying this was “a sign that the independence and autonomy of the powers was not working as it should in Bolivia”. For its part, the government of the Plurinational State, through its Foreign Ministry, issued an official statement in which it expressed “its surprise and bewilderment” at Piñera’s statements, and declared that “Bolivia complies with all the rights and guarantees provided in the Political Constitution of the State and international treaties on Human Rights”. Furthermore, the Plurinational State invited the entire international community to respect the self-determination of the peoples and the principle of interference in internal affairs.
At the time of their interventions, none of this was commented on and both countries advocated for Bolivia’s early admission to Mercosur, since the Plurinational State shares 72% of its borders with the bloc and is home to at least 2 million of Bolivians and Bolivians reside permanently. Chile has also been deepening cooperation ties since Mercosur represents the 4th largest partner for Chilean investments abroad (ID)(after the US, China, EU). In addition, Piñera pointed out that his country can be a bridge between Mercosur and the Pacific Alliance.
Mercosur Citizenship Statute
Regarding the Mercosur Citizenship Statute (ECM), the Argentine Foreign Minister, Felipe Solá, briefly presented some of its most outstanding aspects: the ECM “compiles rights and benefits that have a direct impact on the lives of the inhabitants of these nations in diverse matters such as movement of people and residence, borders, work, social security, education, consular cooperation, communications and consumer defense.”
The Statute is the result of a 10-year Action Plan and has been drawn up taking into account a multidimensional approach to integration guided by the principles of justice and social inclusion, which allows Mercosur citizens: to obtain residency in a simplified way in any country of the bloc, access a formal job, study and exercise their rights and freedoms under the same conditions as nationals; as well as, process the recognition of a primary or secondary degree and that it is valid as in the country of origin, among other rights.