It is noteworthy how two processes of regional integration, the European
Union and Mercosur, which have some common elements but also notable differences,
are going through times of crisis. Some observers even believe that they
show the characteristics of a terminal crisis. Others, us included, more
cautiously regard these characteristics as a display of methodological
problems -how the partner nations can work together-, than of existential
ones -why keep working together.
The fact is that the Brexit and post-Brexit crises in the EU show the
significant differences between member countries on how to build integration
in the European regional geographical space.
For various reasons, these differences are also evident in the Mercosur.
The recent questioning of the fact that Venezuela could assume the pro
tempore presidency, which would formally correspond in the second half
of this year, is clear evidence that something has deteriorated among
the partners. We can add to this the recurring questions on the instrument
of the common external tariff, explicitly provided for by the Treaty of
Asuncion and which, together with its Article 2 (reciprocity of rights
and obligations), constitute the guarantee that the founding members gave
to each other that the tariff preferences granted reciprocally would not
Three reflections can contribute to place both crises in a wider perspective.
The first relates to the fact that both cases are processes of integration
between sovereign nations that have voluntarily decided to participate
in them, accepting the common rules that were agreed. Some nations did
so from the founding moment. Others adhered later of their own will, such
the cases of the UK in the EU and Venezuela in Mercosur, among others.
Moreover, the British experience suggests that the other member countries
were not necessarily bound to accept the new additions (for example, in
a first attempt, in 1963, the United Kingdom could not be incorporated
to the EU because of the veto of the French government).
Just as no one can force a sovereign nation to form part of an integration
process institutionalized in a founding treaty, no one can prevent a member
country from withdrawing when the rules provide for this. By its sovereign
will, Chile withdrew from the Andean Group and, years later, Venezuela
withdrew from the Andean Community of Nations (CAN). The founding agreements
provide for this right to withdrawal and the procedures for achieving
them. Such is the case today of Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, which
is to regulate the post-Brexit stage of the yet uncertain process of the
withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU.
The voluntary nature of the participation of a nation in a process of
integration and its subsequent agreement to comply with common rules is
not a minor detail at the moment of assessing the scope of decisions such
as the one taken by the citizens of the United Kingdom in the Brexit referendum.
The voluntary withdrawal from an integration process is an option that
would also be available to a member country of Mercosur that does not
agree, for example, with the restrictions involving the instrument of
the common external tariff. Of course, in relation to this issue, another
option would be to obtain the necessary consensus to amend the Treaty
of Asuncion. Even if Decision 32/00 CM were repealed, as in some cases
has been suggested, a situation that arises from the provisions of its
own founding treaty would not be fully resolved.
The second consideration refers to the fact that, once the political
decision to undertake a process of regional integration has been made,
the participating nations have the right to exercise the principle of
freedom of organization, that is, to choose the most appropriate methodologies
to achieve the common objectives (see Angelo Piero Seregni, "Le Organizzazioni
Internazionali" Dott.A.Giuffré Editore, Milan 1959). There
is no single model on how to build a process of integration between sovereign
nations which is voluntary and subject to common rules. Incidentally,
the methodologies used have to be related with the density of the commitments
that the participating countries are willing to make, especially in the
economic sphere and with the deadlines set to achieve the desired objectives.
But they should also take into account the legal commitments made by
the participating countries with other nations, especially at the multilateral
global level. In this regard, the main commitments are those arising from
Article XXIV of the GATT. In relation to the trade of goods, paragraph
8 of this article -which is now part of the legal framework of the WTO-
has definitions of the two main instruments, the free trade zone and the
customs union, that allow to arrange trade preferences not extended to
other countries of the multilateral global system due to the effects of
the most-favored-nation clause (Article I, which is a cornerstone of the
GATT legal system).
As we have stated on other occasions, these are definitions that lend
themselves to relatively flexible interpretations and not necessarily
conform to the more theoretical and dogmatic views of what a free trade
area or customs union should be. These are examples of the "constructive
ambiguities" that characterize the GATT, of a marked Anglo-Saxon
legal nature. Moreover, for developing countries -such the case of Mercosur
members- the enabling clause provides an even more flexible framework
for the design of a regional integration agreement that includes tariff
And the third consideration relates to what John Carlin characterized
as the "human factor" in international relations (see John Carlin,
"Invictus: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation",
Penguin Books, London 2008, and his weekly column under the same name
in the newspaper "El País" of Madrid, on http://elpais.com/autor/john_carlin/a).
This involves the vision and leadership provided by those people who inspire
or propel significant events in political life. In this case, in the negotiations
leading to the founding pact of an integration process and, later on,
in the different moments of its development, which often involve overcoming
The voluntary nature of the regional integration between sovereign nations,
based on the respect for common rules; the absence of a single model on
how to carry out a voluntary integration process, but existence of multilateral
legal commitments that may affect the methodology used for granting trade
preferences, and the importance of the vision and political leadership,
both at the founding moment and later on, to address critical situations,
are then the three factors that can affect the ability of countries trying
to undertake a process of regional integration and sustain it over time.
Of these factors, the third is perhaps the most relevant. Vision and
political leadership are qualities that were present in the various founding
moments of European integration. I also believe they were present thirty
years ago, at the time of the initial integration agreements between Argentina
and Brazil and then during the founding moments of Mercosur.
Vision and political leadership imply the ability of those involved,
from their different perspectives, to design agreements and rules that
are perceived as potential generators of mutual gains for the participating
countries and that can produce a reconciliation of interests and wills
to achieve approval and have a significant potential to be effective and
penetrate reality. Moreover, vision and political leadership are also
required for the task of adapting an integration project and its rules
to the continuous changes in the realities.
In the founding moment of European integration, Jean Monnet brought this
kind vision and leadership. He was not the only one, but he played a key
role in the reconciliation of wills that led to the Treaty of Paris, after
the Schumann Declaration of May 9th, 1950. Reviewing his memoirs today
is highly recommended for those who are wondering how to continue building
a space of European integration (Jean Monnet, "Memoires," Fayard,
Paris 1976; in English, "Memoirs", Collins, London 1978, and,
in Spanish, "Memorias", Encuentro - CEU, Madrid 2010).
Regional integration is a process that is built day by day. Roadmaps
require constant adaptation. This involves a dynamic balance between flexibility
and predictability resulting from its institutions and rules. Monnet says,
in concluding his Memoirs and almost at the end of his long life (he died
at 92): "We must make our way day after day; the essential is to
have an objective that is clear enough so as not to lose sight of it "(in
page 591 of the Spanish version).
A picture of the Kon-Tiki, the raft that in 1947 with a crew of five
young men led by the Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl sailed for over one hundred
days from Callao in Peru to Polynesia, occupied a prominent place in Jean
Monnet's desk in Luxembourg, when he chaired the High Authority of the
Coal and Steel European Community. "These young people" -told
Monnet to his visitors, as he remembers on the last pages of his memoirs-
"chose their course and set sail knowing that they could not turn
around. However great their difficulties, they only had one recourse:
to move forward". They were driven by a vision that was actually
an obsession: to demonstrate that it was possible to sail on raft from
South America to Polynesia. They were tenacious and succeeded (see the
book on the Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl "Expedition Kon-Tiki".
Simon and Schuster, New York - London, 1984, and also the film "Kon
Tiki" (2012), on https://gloria.tv/).
In view of the difficulties that the processes of regional integration
of the EU and Mercosur are undergoing today, the implicit advice to be
drawn from Jean Monnet and the experience of Kon-Tiki is along this lines:
be tenacious, go ahead, but adapt navigation courses to the changes in
currents, winds and tides.
Backtracking could be the result of not remembering the vision that prompted
us to set sail; this is, to begin the construction of a space of regional
It may also involve going back to the scenarios of confrontation and
fragmentation that both regions have experienced in the past. Indeed,
these were more intense and dramatic in the European case, as illustrated
in the book by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, "Europa en ruinas. Relatos
de testigos oculares de los años 1944 a 1948", Captain Swing,
2013. But in the case of Mercosur, it could mean going back to scenarios
such as those that were reversed by the agreements conceived by Raul Alfonsin
together, first, with Tancredo Neves and, later, with Jose Sarney.