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LATIN AMERICA | 09-07-2024 09:44

Mercosur leaders slam President Milei's absence from summit

Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, Luis Lacalle Pou and Santiago Peña criticise Argentine leaders decision not to attend a Mercosur presidential summit.

President Javier Milei raised the ire Monday of his counterparts on South America's Mercosur bloc for snubbing their summit just one day after attending a far-right gathering in Brazil.

Brazil's President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, with whom ultra-liberal Milei has traded many barbs, told reporters at the Paraguay summit that Milei's absence was "a huge foolishness."

"It is a huge foolishness that the president of an important country like Argentina does not participate in a meeting with Mercosur," said the veteran leftist.

Milei, a self-declared "anarcho-capitalist" who has picked fights with numerous leftist leaders since taking office in December, recently described Lula as a "little lefty" with an "inflated ego." 

But at Monday's meeting, even fellow right-leaning leaders Luis Lacalle Pou of Uruguay and Santiago Peña of host nation Paraguay, lamented Milei's absence.

Lacalle Pou said that "all the presidents" of the bloc should have been at the meeting.

"The message is not the only important thing, the messenger is very important," said the Uruguayan leader, referring to Milei’s absence.

"If Mercosur is so important, all the presidents should be here. I attach importance to Mercosur. And if we really believe in this bloc, we should all be here," said Lacalle Pou.

It was the first time new member Bolivia attended a Mercosur summit, at which Argentina was represented by Foreign Minister Diana Mondino.

And it came one week after Bolivia recalled its ambassador to Buenos Aires over Milei qualifying claims of a coup attempt against his counterpart Luis Arce, a Lula ally, as "fraudulent."

On that same day, Argentina’s Presidency announced that due to "agenda issues," Milei would no longer attend the Mercosur summit.

Instead he travelled to Brazil, where he attended a CPAC conference of Latin American conservatives with Lula's far-right predecessor Jair Bolsonaro over the weekend.

Mondino used her address to the summit Monday to criticise an "excess" of trade regulations within the bloc, which she said were hampering Mercosur's export capabilities.

The previous day, she had said the bloc needed an adrenaline shock," declaring that the “intra-zone trade suffers from an undeniable stagnation.”

"We have a critical view of Mercosur's present situation and we consider that its potential as an expanded market and a platform for relations with the world is highly untapped,” Mondino told fellow foreign ministers.

President Milei’s government in Argentina “seeks to normalise foreign trade and favour the free import of goods and services," she added.

Uruguay has long been pushing for more flexibility to allow individual bloc members to enter into free-trade agreements with third countries such as China.

Brazil has reaffirmed strong ties with China under Lula, but Milei had threatened to cut ties with China during his campaign, and Paraguay maintains diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

"We have become a balkanised and divided meeting," Lula reckoned in his speech to Mercosur. "Never before have we faced so many challenges, whether at the regional or global level.”

Peña also insisted on the importance of keeping the bloc united and avoiding ideological considerations. 

"We are a little bit tired of integration and we have to renew the culture of integration," he told reporters.

The bloc “made a lot of progress in the 1990s but in the 2000s … there was a change in the trend with an ideological bias that caused the bloc to disintegrate,” he warned.

Mondino replied that member states “don’t have to agree” and said that nations needed “maturity” and to respect “different opinions.”

She criticised “excessive regulations” and compared the bloc’s rules to “a corset that immobilises us.”

The Paraguay summit took place amid tensions about a long-delayed European Union-Mercosur free trade agreement, which France's Emmanuel Macron described in March as "really bad." 

Negotiated arduously over two decades, the terms of an agreement were finalised in 2019, though the deal has since run into problems.

The deal – which would create a potential market of some 700 million consumers – would see the region's agricultural powers export meat, sugar, rice, honey and soybeans to Europe, while the EU would export cars, machinery and pharmaceuticals, among other items.

Lula blamed the lack of an agreement on the EU’s “internal contradictions.” 

Officials did, however, highlight a recent agreement with Singapore, which broke a more than decade-long drought of free-trade pacts when it was signed last December, and the beginning of talks with the United Arab Emirates earlier this week.

The Mercosur, or Southern Common Market, was founded in 1991 by Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. 

Venezuela, whose membership was approved in 2006, has been suspended since 2017 for "rupture of democratic order." 

Mercosur has a combined population of more than 295 million and GDP of some US$2.86 trillion.


– TIMES/AFP

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