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ARGENTINA | 17-05-2024 20:51

Milei picks far-right rally over Spanish PM during Madrid visit

For most heads of state, it’d be unthinkable to visit another nation, skip meeting its leader and instead attend an opposition rally. But for Javier Milei, it's not the first time he's made such trips.

For most heads of state, it’d be unthinkable to visit another nation, skip meeting its leader and instead attend an opposition rally.

But for President Javier Milei, it’s just another poke-in-the-eye trip. To a historic ally, no less.

Milei, who spent his campaign bashing his nation’s top trading partners, arrived in Madrid on Friday for a visit that will do nothing to improve fast-deteriorating relations with the government of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez.

The pair spent recent weeks trading public, personal barbs, and won’t meet during Milei’s three days in the Spanish capital. Instead, the libertarian Argentine leader will spend Sunday afternoon at a rally for Vox — the far-right party that’s Sánchez’s fiercest critic and that seeks to make significant gains in June’s European parliamentary elections.

Since taking office in December, Milei has regularly skirted official diplomatic channels to plan trips abroad: just hours after hosting US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Buenos Aires in February, he flew to Washington to deliver a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference over the weekend. There, he told Donald Trump he wishes the former US president wins November’s election. No meetings with Joe Biden or other White House officials were on the agenda.

The strategy has helped turn Milei into a burgeoning superstar on the global right, as parties like Vox cozy up and leaders from Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu to Italy’s Giorgia Meloni welcome him into the fold.

But it has also started to generate concerns among analysts and observers who worry that Milei’s combative and highly ideological foreign policy will limit his ability to strengthen trade and investment relationships that could help Argentina’s ailing economy.

“Milei’s presidential travel is highly eccentric,” said Benjamin Gedan, director of the Wilson Center’s Latin America programme. “His agenda is oftentimes personal, misses opportunities to woo investors, and irritates — or at least befuddles — foreign leaders.”

“The question,” he added, “is whether Milei’s dogmatic policy preferences risk alienating natural allies in the West who are otherwise eager to support Argentina’s foreign policy realignment and its sensible economic reform programme.”

 

Deep ties, fraught relations

Spain has long enjoyed close diplomatic and economic ties with Latin American countries in general because of their shared language and colonial past. That relationship has been challenged by the emergence of China as a key trading partner in the beginning of the century, and hurdles to the approval of a free-trade agreement between the European Union and Mercosur, the customs bloc whose founding members are Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. 

Spanish companies, including Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria SA, Banco Santander SA and retailer Zara, still account for the second largest stock of foreign direct investment into Argentina, only behind that of US firms. The links have remained strong in recent years thanks to an influx of Argentine immigrants fleeing their economic misery: Nearly 30,000 arrived in the first quarter of 2023, and roughly 500,000 now call Spain home, double the number who live in the US.

Yet China is now Argentina’s second-largest trading partner after Brazil, with Spain trailing in ninth position.

Milei and Sánchez – a socialist and close ally of Latin American leftists like Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Colombia’s Gustavo Petro and Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro – were always likely to have a fraught political relationship that put those links to the test. 

Their differences exploded into an all-out fight earlier this month, when a member of Sánchez’s Cabinet suggested that Milei had been on drugs during a TV appearance last year. The Argentine responded with a lengthy official statement that accused his Spanish counterpart of enacting policies that “only bring poverty and death.”

The trip is set to deepen the rift: Milei will on Saturday meet Spanish lawmaker Santiago Abascal, the leader of the anti-immigrant Vox party that is hoping the presence of the chainsaw-wielding, anti-establishment Argentine will supercharge the right-wing’s election push across Europe.

“It will be a great event for all the patriotic, conservative and identitarian parties of Europe,” Vox Vice-President Jorge Buxade said of the rally Milei will attend during an interview with Bloomberg News earlier this month.

 

Political nature

Milei’s spokesman Manuel Adorni downplayed the controversy, saying that the primary focus of the trip is to meet “the main Spanish business leaders who invest in Argentina.” But he declined to name specific executives Milei would see, and Sánchez’s government is clearly perturbed by the political nature of the visit. 

“President Milei has decided to come as a leader of a politically-aligned group, which is the far-right Vox in Spain, and not as the president of the Argentine Republic nor as an institutional representative seeking investments,” Deputy Prime Minister Teresa Ribera said in an interview. “He must know what he’s doing.”

The strained relations between the two governments “obviously has a cost,” said Carlos Malamud, an Argentine historian and principal researcher at Real Instituto Elcano think tank in Madrid. “It would be good if the two governments would tone down their discrepancies and strengthen a relationship at the institutional level that has very solid foundations otherwise.”

It remains to be seen how deep the impact of the current crisis might be. Milei has previously retreated from his criticism of China and Brazil, attempting to patch up relations as potential economic fallout — like an US$18-billion currency swap with the People’s Bank of China — came into view.

He may pursue a similar path in Spain: Adorni said Thursday that a follow-up trip to meet officials from Sánchez’s administration was in the planning stage.

The increasing number of Argentines living in Spain, meanwhile, may ultimately help shield the economic ties from political differences, as has been the case in Argentina and Brazil’s on-again, off-again relationship in recent years.

“Spain continues to be our main investor from the European Union,” said Cornelia Schmidt-Liermann, the director of European affairs at the Argentine Council for International Relations. “Diplomatic ties have only intensified recently because of all the young Argentines who today are in Spain. Even when relations between governments aren’t great, ties between businesses and academia intensify precisely because we can’t abandon this relationship that’s baked into our DNA.”

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by Manuela Tobias & Jorge Valero, Bloomberg

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