I have visited 67 countries since becoming foreign secretary but never before felt such a sense of mystery as I did last month when I gazed at the Pacific from the coast of Latin America. I asked myself, why it had taken so long for a foreign secretary to visit the region? Why was I the first foreign secretary to visit Peru for 50 years? Why had we waited 25 years to go to Argentina, and the same in the case of Chile?
My recent predecessors were far from ignorant of the close historical and cultural links between Britain and Latin America. In Argentina, there is not only a sizeable Anglophone population, but we built the railways and the huge terminus in Buenos Aires. In Chile, this is the 200th anniversary of the arrival of admiral Thomas Cochrane, founder of the Chilean Navy, who played a crucial role helping liberate that country from Spanish rule.
In Peru, I flew into the Amazon with President Martín Vizcarra, and it made me very proud to see how British solar battery technology is helping to power the laptops of some of the poorest kids in Latin America. Thanks to mining, the UK is now the second biggest foreign investor in Peru. I declare a personal interest as the boundaries of Peru were once mapped by colonel Percy Fawcett, a celebrated explorer and distant relative of mine who later disappeared in Brazil.
I discovered that the people of the region retain a keen and growing appetite for all things British. They want to see more investment, more engagement, more co-operation, on everything from culture to cybercrime. So why – to return to the mystery with which I began – have we been so slow to engage?
Think back to 1966, when the thenforeign secretary Michael Stewart was the last of my predecessors to visit Peru. It was only a few years later that Britain joined what was then the Common Market and you might argue that over the succeeding decades we became more eurocentric and less instinctively global than we had been previously. In short, we lost focus on Latin America.
Today, this vast continent – full of countries and peoples whose values are so close to our own – makes up a pitiful share of our overall trade. In exports we are easily beaten by other Europeans – France, Germany and Spain. Chile is full of Anglophiles but the UK makes up only 0.8 per cent of Chilean imports.
Latin America is currently divided between Mercosur, a customs union comprising Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, and the Pacific Alliance, a free-trading, free-market grouping of countries – Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Chile – that operate their own trade policies. With Brexit, now is the moment not to be less European but to be truly global again. Now is the time to create deals with these dynamic countries (Chile alone has 24 such deals with 64 nations comprising 85 per cent of global GDP).
If we get it right, the opportunities are vast. Already UK bus companies are bidding to supply London double decker buses for the streets of Santiago. Thanks to the success of the London 2012 Olympic Games, the UK is helping Lima to lay on the Pan-American Games. For our part, we are already the second-biggest consumers of Argentine wines. And that’s before we have signed any free trade agreements. Our Global Britain approach is complementary to Argentina’s initiative of intelligent insertion into the world and we thus have a shared interest in greater co-operation.
Elsewhere, other links are proliferating. Mexico now sends the highest number of Masters students to the UK in Europe. On climate change, our close collaboration has meant that Mexico was only the second country (after the UK) to have a climate change law. Several million Brazilians rose early to watch the recent Royal Wedding. In Colombia, the UK has provided over £28 million from the Conflict Stability and Security Fund since 2015, making us the largest donor to the UN Trust Fund supporting implementation of the peace agreement.
For both Latin America and the UK there are huge opportunities on either side of the Atlantic. But first we need to rediscover that global spirit.