What does a new EU foreign policy chief mean for Latin America?


In early June, presidents and prime ministers from across the European Union announced new leadership of the bloc’s executive body for its next five-year term, notably including a stronger advocate for closer EU-Latin American ties, Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell. The European Union has long had an important relationship with Latin America, evidenced by its status as the largest investor in the region, but it has recently only grown more important as shown by the agreement to an EU-Mercosur trade deal. Borrell has been a dominant European player on Latin American issues for years — from encouraging EU-Latin American engagement in the early 2000s to speaking out on political crises in Venezuela and Nicaragua as foreign minister. In terms of both symbolic and substantive changes, the nomination of Borrell as the bloc’s equivalent to both a defense and foreign minister — called the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy — will likely encourage the EU to take an even more active role in the Western Hemisphere.

Spanish foreign minister Borrell, a dual-Spanish and Argentinian citizen, has been a noted and often outspoken voice on a number of foreign policy issues, including European integration, resisting Russian aggression, and African development. He has, however, placed particular emphasis on cultivating stronger EU-Latin American ties. After a term as the Spanish Minister of Public Works and Environment from 1991 to 1996 and as the leader of the opposition in 1998 and 1999, Borrell was elected to the EU-parliament and the presidency of the legislative body in 2004. It was in this role where his “enthusiastic engagement” drove the creation of the Euro-Latin America Parliamentary Assembly, a trans-Atlantic conference of legislators. Later, as the chair of the EU parliament’s Committee on Development, he advocated for larger and more sustainable aid from the EU to the developing world, including countries like Haiti.

As the Spanish foreign minister since 2018, Borrell has been a noteworthy voice on the crises in Nicaragua and Venezuela. He actively denounced Daniel Ortega’s “bloody repression” and anti-democratic tactics in Nicaragua and urged tougher sanctions against what he has called Ortega’s “dictatorship”. This contrasts sharply with the current EU approach, which has been to condemn anti-democratic practices in the country but not to impose any punishment, such as sanctions, on the Ortega regime. Regarding Venezuela, Borrell originally pressed the EU to take a more active role as a mediator, rather than the more passive “contact group” between Europe and a few Latin American countries that the EU ultimately settled on. It is unlikely for structural reasons within the EU that it will adopt a sanctions regime against Venezuela or Nicaragua that is as strong as the United States’. But Borrell’s greater attention to the region may encourage the bloc to become a more active mediator in the crises or issue EU-wide sanctions against the Ortega and Maduro regimes.

As Europe takes a larger role in Latin American affairs under Borrell, the EU may embrace a more conflictual relationship with President Trump and the United States government. Borrell has a propensity to colorfully criticize the United States over its actions in the hemisphere, which could position him as a trans-Atlantic counterweight to Trump in the region. While Borrell’s predecessor, Federica Mogherini, criticized the US when she saw fit, she has been less aggressive or attention-seeking than Borrell. For instance, when Trump issued an executive order to allow lawsuits over confiscated property in Cuba, the Spanish foreign minister issued a forceful rebuke calling Trump’s actions “an abuse of power,” a sharper criticism than Mogherini’s comment that the EU had “strong opposition” to the measure. Further, as foreign minister, Borrell said Trump’s administration was acting like a “cowboy” for threatening to invade Venezuela to overthrow the Maduro regime. There is little reason to believe that Borrell will curtail this type of attention-grabbing criticism as the EU’s High Representative, which could further fray ties between the US and EU on Latin American policy.

While Borrell might bring more European attention to Latin America and the Caribbean, it is unclear if his focus on the region will be entirely welcome. The Spanish foreign minister has often been compared to Trump with his blunt and sometimes confrontational style. His lack of diplomacy could backfire and undermine his priorities for the region. Last summer, for example, he tweeted an endorsement of a controversial book that downplays Spanish colonial atrocities in Latin America. More recently, Borrell found himself in a spat with the Secretary-General of the OAS over attempted negotiations in Venezuela by former Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. And Borrell likely did not endear himself to many Mexicans or President Andrés Manuel López Obrador when he rejected Mexico’s request for a formal apology from the Spanish government for any atrocities committed during colonization.

Nevertheless, if Borrell is confirmed as the next EU High Representative in November, an outcome that is far from assured but is still more likely than not, the world can expect a more active and united EU in the Western Hemisphere, as well as a more conflictual EU-US relationship over the region. Though the High Representative is a largely symbolic position (as the role has less authority and a lighter staff than most foreign and defense ministries), he or she still has significant responsibility for uniting European leaders around policy positions and setting agendas. Even without an army or a large dedicated foreign service, Borrell’s concern for and attention to the region will likely encourage a more forceful European presence in the Americas over the next five years.

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