Europe: Time to partner with an old friend

Panama has historically been Europe’s key investment and trade partner in Latin America and the Caribbean; it can now play an essential role in the region’s renaissance in relations with the EU, writes Yavel Francis.
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By Yavel Francis

Yavel Francis is the Ambassador of Panama to the Kingdom of Belgium, Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, Republic of Slovenia and Head of Mission to the European Union (EU).

15 Feb 2021

The year 2020 took many titles as “the year of…”. From a diplomatic perspective, one of the most evident was “the year to rethink our role in the international community” and reconsider whether we have been focusing wisely on our partnerships. COVID-19 has certainly shaken the world and its consequences will last for many years, posing a tremendous challenge for each country to solve the many health, social, political, and economic problems that just grew bigger.

The assertion that the relations between the European Union (EU) and Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) were at a standstill is not new. Fortunately, there are accumulated assets and many meeting points, all of which constitute a good standpoint for the renewal of our bi-regional relationship on so many fronts.

Panama has historically been Europe’s key investment and trade partner, as well as an active participant in cooperation, environmental, and social programs that continue to grow, all of which has taken a new dimension through our humanitarian hub and the many regional organisations, countries and sectors working together throughout this pandemic. But there is an additional factor that Panama adds to this which is the shared strong belief in building consensus, in multilateralism, in finding common grounds and respecting fundamental democratic values to the very complex issues in our region.

In the present state of events, it will be impossible to reconstruct our world and recover post COVID-19 from an isolated approach, making more vital than ever the need to join forces with those who have shared – though not necessarily identical - views and values to move on for the benefit of our countries and citizens. As it is, it will be the combination of all, bilateral, bi-regional, and multilateral relations, which will give us the best outcome. It is harder and more complex to find common grounds by groups, but it can only enhance the results and, as a matter of fact, in many key issues, there is no alternative.

“In Latin America, we benefit from our relationship with Europe; it is a crucial trading partner bloc and the EU is the largest donor of development aid to the region”

The European Union has lately announced its aim to focus on, expressed by its own words, a forgotten friend: Latin America and the Caribbean. I celebrate the awakening; Europe should focus on its friends and partners in Latin America and the Caribbean and should be much more open about it. After all, together we already fight the consequences of the pandemic, we join forces to protect the environment, to combat climate change and protect biodiversity, and we forge new and stronger digital ties. Yet, looking at the Brussels debates, this is not visible.

In December last year, Ministers from the EU Member States met with their counterparts from 27 Latin American and Caribbean countries for a conference hosted by the German EU-Presidency. This meeting was long overdue and showed how much we are better off working together. It is much easier to focus and comment on things we disagree on, yet we can get so much further if we turn the attention to what we can – or already have – achieved together.

I was surprised by the limited debate and news afterwards on a matter that was important enough to gather Ministers of Europe and Latin America and the Caribbean in the middle of a pandemic. And it made me realise that maybe the first step to acknowledge the importance of this partnership, for all parties involved, is saying it out loud.

In Latin America, we benefit from our relationship with Europe; it is a crucial trading partner bloc and the EU is the largest donor of development aid to the region. Europe has invested close to €800bn in our economies. We export goods and services back and forth, and in my country, in addition to our growing exports, we see this every day with ships passing through the Panama Canal, connecting the world.

“There are many issues we can only solve together, and we are ready for a stronger partnership with Europe, where each of us have something to bring to the table”

What is also true, but somehow more overlooked, is that Europe benefits from Latin America and the Caribbean as well. While Europe is an important market for our products, the reverse is also true. Even more so, European companies' economies are integrated deeply into the economies of our region and they have been for centuries.

As the High Representative on Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, said in the European Parliament recently, “European companies have, in fact, more money invested in Latin America than they do in China, India, Russia, and Japan combined”. Yet, Europe's political debates do not reflect this.

But if the solid economic interdependence is important, what is the real backbone of a bi-regional alliance is shared values and commitments. Yet, here again, my impression is that in Europe the obvious is overlooked: continued work together on shared goals and objectives like a greener, safer world and a stronger multilateralism. There are many issues we can only solve together, and we are ready for a stronger partnership with Europe, where each of us have something to bring to the table.

Taking the political will as a given, the lack of knowledge is maybe one of the great barriers for a meaningful, respectful relationship between Europe and Latin America and the Caribbean. In general terms, there is too little knowledge of just how important we are for each other, how intertwined our economies are and how aligned we are on the grand lines of many issues. We have a duty to communicate and share with our citizens not only what our disagreements are, but also the values and benefits of our partnerships.

“As the Ambassador of Panama to the European Union, I am extremely proud when I see my country and my region in palpable engagement in Europe”

Fighting climate change and preserving biodiversity are probably among the most important items on the agenda, in parallel with COVID-19 recovery. It should be obvious that we can – and should – stand side by side with our partners in the struggle to protect our planet. Panama has been blessed with a spectacular biodiversity and we are committed to preserve it, just like Europe is committed to preserve its environment.

As the Ambassador of Panama to the European Union, I am extremely proud when I see my country and my region in palpable engagement in Europe: from the supermarket bananas, the specialty coffee, Panamanian cocoa beans or rum you buy as a gift, to joint efforts on security or regional programs and most recently to the coordinated efforts in COVID-19 recovery.

Panama looks forward to 2021 after the announcements of the renaissance of this transatlantic bi-regional relation and to make the already long-term relationship of values and goals with Europe even stronger.

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