HAS THE TIME COME TO MODIFY THE TREATY OF ASUNCIÓN?
Options for adapting Mercosur to the new global and regional realities
by Félix Peña
English translation: Isabel Romero Carranza
Thirty years after the signing of the Treaty of Asunción,
the elements that comprise the existential dimension of Mercosur, in other
words, the reason why to cooperate, are still valid. The need for this
group of adjoining nations belonging to a region with strong potential
and great diversity, to work together towards advancing their economic
and social development, strengthening their political systems and achieving
an inclusion in the international system that is functional to their interests
and possibilities, is not being questioned.
The actual differences arise with regard to the methodological dimension,
or how to work together. These are natural differences in any voluntary
integration process between sovereign nations that wish to remain so.
In fact, the objective is to share the exercise of their sovereignty without
losing their individuality as nations.
The problems do not stem from the need for a continuous adaptation
of a voluntary integration process between nations and its existential
narrative to the frequent changes in realities, both in the participating
countries and in the regional and global environment in which they are
inserted. Rather, the real problems may result from the shortcomings of
the methods used to eventually redirect the path laid out or to adjust
it when necessary due to the impact of those realities.
If a country perceives serious difficulties in introducing modifications
in the methodological dimension and considers that this could affect its
national interests, it always has the existential option of withdrawing
from the corresponding integration process.
Methodological deficiencies can be resolved with modifications to
the agreed common rules and practices, including, if necessary, those
of the articles of incorporation of the original pact.
In an integration process such as Mercosur's, a good diagnosis of
its practical difficulties in navigating a world in a continuous process
of change is of utmost importance.
When the Treaty of Asunción, that created Mercosur, was signed
on March 26, 1991, the essence of the agreement was reflected in the conditions
for reciprocity of trade preferences granted to each other by the member
countries and, in particular, those of the two main economies of the regional
integration area that was being created.
A customs union, rather than a free trade zone, was explicitly chosen.
Articles 1 and 5 of the Treaty contain the main elements of the pact between
the partner countries. However, the central idea of the scope of the pact
is reflected in Article 2, which establishes reciprocity as the main commitment
("The Common Market shall be based on reciprocity of rights and obligations
among the States Parties").
But although a system of reciprocal trade preferences was created, Mercosur
has basic political and economic dimensions that are as profound, if not
more so, than trade preferences. They run deep in the history of the relations
between a group of Latin American countries, which were sometimes characterized
more by a tendency towards conflict than cooperation. Above all, it implied
affirming the idea of working together to promote the intelligent, effective
and efficient international insertion of each of the Mercosur member countries.
Thirty years after the signing of the Treaty of Asunción, the
elements that define the existential dimension of Mercosur, in other words,
why work together, are still fully valid. The need for neighboring nations
that share a common region of high potential and rich diversities to work
together with the aim of enhancing their economic and social development,
strengthening their political systems, and achieving a competitive insertion
in the international system that is truly functional to their interests
and possibilities is not being questioned.
The most striking differences can be seen in the methodological dimension,
i.e., how to work together. These are usually natural differences that
occur in any voluntary integration process between sovereign nations that
wish to remain so. Indeed, the objective is to share the exercise of their
own sovereignty without losing their individuality as nations.
When institutions and rules are created, they imply collective disciplines
that allow for the construction of the desired integration to be carried
out. It is known from international experience that such construction
may take time, even more than imagined. Hence, it may be necessary to
adapt the approximation steps to the agreed objectives. The path towards
the goals pursued may require frequent adaptations. The recent European
experience has been very illustrative in this regard.
The problems do not stem from the need for continuous adaptation of a
voluntary integration process between nations and its narrative to the
frequent changes in the realities, both in the participating countries
and in the regional and global environment in which they are inserted.
On the contrary, the real problems usually result from the shortcomings
of the methods used to eventually redirect the course taken or to adjust
it as necessary to the changing realities.
Such problems may even reveal flaws in the methods used to reach joint
decisions or to ensure their implementation. Or they may reveal deficiencies
in the elaboration of the corresponding national positions with relation
to the challenges arising from the evolving context. They may also result,
among other factors, from shortcomings in the diagnoses of such scenarios,
which may originate either from governmental actors, from the business
sector itself, or from the many and diverse social sectors.
Methodological shortcomings have more complex effects if they translate
into existential differences. In a way, this is one of the lessons that
can be drawn from Brexit, at least from the perspective of those who promoted
it. This can happen, for example, when it is considered that there are
failures in the diagnosis of what is wrong with an integration process.
If a country perceives difficulties in introducing modifications in the
methodological dimension and considers that this may affect its national
interests, it always has the existential option of withdrawing from the
corresponding integration process. This is what happened with the UK's
experience in the EU.
Methodological deficiencies can be resolved with modifications to the
agreed common rules and procedures, including, if necessary, those of
the articles of incorporation of the constituent pact.
From the perspective of the above, it is very important for an integration
process such as Mercosur to make an accurate diagnosis of its practical
difficulties when navigating an ever-changing world. It requires taking
into account both the national perspective of each of the countries participating
in the process and the collective perspective of the integration process
itself, in this case, Mercosur. It is through these diagnoses that the
intensity and quality of the interaction between the multiple actors involved,
including, in particular, the contribution of the action-oriented think
tanks, becomes evident.
Assuming that the diagnoses were correct, this would certainly not be
enough. What is actually required to face methodological crises in an
integration process, especially if they have the potential to result in
existential crises, are effective mechanisms for the coordination of individual
national interests with those interests that are perceived as being common
to all. This implies, foremost, political leadership at the highest level
in all the participating countries, the capacity for consensus-building
within the main governing body of the integration process, and, especially,
an active role of the multiple economic and social sectors involved.
The critical moments of integration processes, such as those seen in
the different experiences of the EU and Mercosur, show that it is in the
capacity for coordination of the main common governing body and in the
quality of the political leadership of the member countries that lie the
main drivers for an effective integration methodology that helps achieve
the desired goals and, at the same time, avoids the recurrence or victory
of any existential crises.
In view of the above, it is important to highlight three relevant issues
that would help to modernize Mercosur and restore an acceptable degree
of its credibility and effectiveness. In fact, these issues are directly
dependent on human factors.
The first issue refers to the methodologies for opening up the respective
markets and their impact on international trade negotiations. The second
issue relates to the institutional methodology -including the capacity
to exercise the necessary function of coordination of national interests-
applied for the adoption of joint decisions, which also have an impact
on the development of the agenda of trade negotiations with other countries.
Finally, the third issue concerns the methodology used to ensure that
the integration process is based and, therefore guided, by shared ground
There are certainly other relevant issues to be addressed however the
three mentioned above are those that, after almost thirty years of Mercosur's
development, would seem advisable to keep in mind, especially in conversations
at the highest political level.
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Félix Peña Director
of the Institute of International Trade at the ICBC Foundation. Director
of the Masters Degree in International Trade Relations at Tres de Febrero
National University (UNTREF). Member of the Executive Committee of the
Argentine Council for International Relations (CARI). Member of the Evian
Group Brains Trust. More