Third EU-CELAC summit: EU and Latin America and the Caribbean strengthen ties – 10 QUESTIONS

'We not only need to trade together, we need to thrive together,' committee chair Ursula von der Leyen said in her opening speech. At one stroke, that was the successful outline of the third EU-CELAC summit that took place in Brussels on 17 and 18 July 2023. A retrospective in 10 questions.

  1. Last updated on
Photo of a conference room filled with participants at the EU-CELAC summit

The opening session of the EU-CELAC summit (© European Union).

'We not only need to trade together, we need to thrive together,' committee chair Ursula von der Leyen said in her opening speech. At one stroke, that was the successful outline of the third EU-CELAC summit that took place in Brussels on 17 and 18 July 2023. A retrospective in 10 questions.

1. What is CELAC?

The 'Community of Latin American and Caribbean States' or CELAC – founded in 2011 – is a regional bloc of 33 Latin American and Caribbean states. Aim: to strengthen regional political dialogue and social and cultural integration, enhance quality of life and encourage economic growth.

To the outside world, it wants to act with a unified voice on topics on which there is consensus. As a bloc, it engages in dialogue with other countries and regional blocs such as the EU, China, Turkey and Russia. Above all, the founders wanted to create a bloc of American countries without the US.

Not all the CELAC countries share the same vision. For example, the Bolivarian countries, as they are known, are leftist or radical leftist. These include Nicaragua, Bolivia, Venezuela and Cuba. There are also some important differences in culture, development and language. Yet, like the EU – and the final declaration showed this – they are won over to democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms, the rule of law and international collaboration in line with the UN charter and international laws.

Some figures on the EU and CELAC

  • The 33 CELAC countries have a population size of approximately 600 million people. Nearly 450 million people live in the EU's 27 Member States. Together, over 1 billion people or 14% of the world's population.
  • Trade between the two regions (goods and services) amounts to 369 billion euros. The EU is the largest investor in the CELAC countries with €693 billion (2022 figures). Both trade and investment are on the rise.
  • Latin America and the Caribbean have more than 50% of our planet's biodiversity and account for 14% of food production. They also get more than 60% of their energy from renewable sources – the largest proportion in the world.

2. Why is the EU interested in Latin America and the Caribbean?

With increasing friction between the major powers (China, the US, Russia, etc.), the EU wants to focus more on other parts of the world. CELAC is a shining example of a continent with mostly like-minded countries that hold similar views on democracy, peace, disarmament and so on. Ideal allies, then.

These are also mostly open economies that are very important to our businesses. They need those new markets now that the Russian market is virtually closed and exports with China are under pressure. CELAC is also a crucial partner for the green transition because they have a great many necessary raw materials.

With its Global Gateway, the EU has established a comprehensive investment agenda with the 'Global South' – the less developed countries. Aim: To invest in regions such as Africa, Asia, neighbouring countries, the Middle East and Latin America and the Caribbean. The EU-CELAC summit provided the ideal opportunity to launch that investment agenda. It involves 'smart investment in high-quality infrastructure, respecting the highest social and environmental standards, in line with EU values and standards'.

3. Why did it take eight years to organise a third summit?

The very first EU-CELAC summit took place in Chile in 2013, followed by a second summit in Brussels in 2015. In principle, a third summit should have taken place at the latest four years later, but the coronavirus crisis threw a spanner in the works.

Former Brazilian President Bolsonaro was no help either. He thought CELAC was too leftist an organisation and no longer wanted to participate in it. And a summit without Brazil – the region's economic powerhouse – made no sense. With the election of President Lula da Silva, Brazil became active again within CELAC and the time for a third summit arrived. President Lula is a highly influential figure, both within CELAC and globally. His active participation in the EU-CELAC summit was therefore a boost.

At this summit, it was agreed to hold a summit every two years, alternating between the EU and the CELAC region. The next summit will take place in Colombia in 2025.

4. Is CELAC also interested in collaborating with the EU?

As noted above, there are some significant differences among the CELAC states. Nonetheless, the CELAC countries generally expected a great deal from the EU-CELAC summit. China may already be the region's largest trading partner – 495 billion exports of mainly soy and minerals in 2022 – and investing heavily there, but at the same time, CELAC is concerned about that growing influence of China. It no longer wants to depend exclusively on China and the US – which, moreover, are engaged in a trade dispute amongst themselves. This is why it wants to diversify, including by strengthening ties with the EU.

CELAC also appreciates the Global Gateway's approach, which includes a focus on transparency, the transfer of knowledge and technology, and the training of local workers. The Global Gateway also ensures that local communities benefit from all the investments.

Photo of Brazilian President Lula, King Philip, Prime Minister De Croo and Minister Lahbib.

Brazilian President Lula (far right) was warmly welcomed by King Philippe, in the presence of Prime Minister De Croo and Minister Lahbib (© FPS Foreign Affairs).

5. What were the main outcomes from the EU-CELAC summit?

The final declaration lists numerous positions and commitments, such as dedication to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), concern for Mother Earth and commitment to UN conventions on climate, biodiversity and desertification. But also a shared commitment to global peace and stability, with support for the peace process in Colombia and dialogue in Haiti, which is suffering greatly from violence.

In other areas, there were four major points for consideration in particular:

  1. The green transition (including hydrogen with Chile) and green shipping (with Chile, Panama, etc.)
  2. A digital alliance that vouches for a digital transition with a focus on privacy protection, greater digital connectivity and cyber security, bridging digital divides and increasing confidence in the digital economy. Numerous projects are in the pipeline, such as the construction of data cable networks.
  3. Health, including building local capacities for vaccine, medicine and health technology production. Health systems must be stronger in prevention, preparedness and response.
  4. Critical raw materials such as lithium and copper as well as rare earths needed for the green transition. Open and fair trade, access to markets and the contribution to sustainable development are important here.

In total, through the Global Gateway, the EU will invest more than 45 billion euros in Latin America and the Caribbean, including in those four areas. Over 135 projects are already in the pipeline.

Some bilateral agreements also emerged. With Chile, the EU signed a partnership around sustainable supply chains for raw materials. In addition, the EU signed two Memoranda of Understanding around energy, one with Argentina and one with Uruguay. This should ensure adequate supplies of raw materials in the EU and decent jobs and growth in the Latin American countries concerned.

Finally, a mini-summit also went ahead between the EU and CARIFORUM, a grouping of Caribbean countries. This brought recognition for the sub-region's specific needs and interests, such as the impact of climate disruption and ocean protection.

6. Were any trade agreements discussed too?

Indeed, the trade agreement with Mercosur came up. Mercosur groups together four economic heavyweights in South America: Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. Despite heavy pressure from the Spanish EU presidency and countries like Germany, Portugal and Sweden, no major progress was made. This was largely because France wants some additional guarantees for rainforest protection when importing agricultural products. In turn, Austria, Ireland and Wallonia are demanding further guarantees around sustainability in meat imports.

Still, Commission Chair von der Leyen hopes the trade agreement with Mercosur can be finalised by the end of 2023, as can the renewed EU-Mexico agreement. There was also a breakthrough with the ‘Post-Cotonou Agreement', a renewed agreement with a trade dimension with ACP (Africa, Caribbean and Pacific) countries.

7. Was civil society also involved?

In parallel with the official summit, the EU organised a meeting at Tour & Taxis (Brussels) for civil society from both European and Latin American countries. The first day was about youth, the second day about environment and social development. Belgian NGOs – which receive support from the Directorate General for Development Co-operation, among others – also actively participated.

The Peoples' Summit, as it is known, that was held at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) was primarily an initiative from Cuba. The event opposed the US embargo on Cuba and criticised capitalism and neocolonialism. A number of Heads of State or Ministers who participated in the EU-CELAC summit were also in attendance. These include Cuba, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua.

The Peoples' Summit did not alter the very good atmosphere at the EU-CELAC summit. The final declaration of the EU-CELAC summit also calls for an end to the embargo against Cuba and recognises that the transatlantic slave trade was an appalling tragedy and a crime against humanity.

8. What was the attitude towards the war in Ukraine?

The EU-CELAC summit debated the conflict in Ukraine at length. The final declaration states that participants express deep concern about the war against Ukraine and that the Black Sea Grain Initiative should be reinstated. This initiative should allow the export of grain from Ukraine once more. The participating countries support all diplomatic efforts to achieve a just and lasting peace, in line with the UN Charter. Only Nicaragua was unable to agree with the paragraph on the war in Ukraine.

CELAC's stance at the summit matched the voting pattern at the UN. There, most of the CELAC countries supported all the resolutions on Ukraine, or at least did not vote against them.

Photo of Minister Lahbib and Panamanian foreign minister Janaina Tewaney

Minister Lahbib greets Panamanian Foreign Minister Janaina Tewaney (© FPS Foreign Affairs).

9. What role did Belgium play during the EU-CELAC summit?

Belgium played a very active role during the summit. Not only were Prime Minister Alexander De Croo and Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib prominently present, many Belgian companies participated in the business round table, alongside Belgian NGOs in the civil society forum.

Prime Minister De Croo, by the way, made a noted speech focusing on narco-terrorism and narco-trafficking. Drugs trafficking is a real scourge for many countries, and the port of Antwerp also suffers greatly from it. The Prime Minister's speech offered some concrete ideas for addressing the issues and was therefore greatly appreciated. The collaboration between police, customs and ports in both regions will be ramped up to combat cocaine trafficking and other organised crimes more efficiently.

Relations with the CELAC region will also be at the top of the agenda during the Belgian EU presidency in 2024.

10. What are Belgium's relations with Latin America and the Caribbean like?

Just as for the EU, Latin American and Caribbean countries are extremely important partners for Belgium, especially economically. Such an EU-CELAC summit in Brussels – with 33 Heads of State and Government or Foreign Ministers – therefore provides a unique opportunity for bilateral contact.

At the 2015 summit, His Majesty King Philip received the full delegation at the Royal Palace. This year – just before the national holiday – that was not possible. Nonetheless, Brazilian President Lula da Silva was warmly received there for a candid conversation, in the presence of Prime Minister De Croo and Minister Lahbib. The King also received Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso and Chilean President Gabriel Boric.

Minister Lahbib met with some six ministers, including from Jamaica, Panama, Cuba, Haiti and Guatemala. Some bilateral agreements were also signed. Alongside that, our country is also working very well with Latin American countries in the UN Human Rights Council where it is currently a member, including on women's rights.