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  Félix Peña

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  Veintitres Internacional Magazine | July 2011
Political momentum and technical ingenuity: The agendas of a Mercosur seeking to update itself


English version of an article published by Veintitres Internacional, Buenos Aires Julio 2011 (

What are the agendas to be developed by a Mercosur that seeks to update itself, adapting to circumstances that are quite different from those that prevailed at the time of its foundation?

After the recent Presidential Summit held in Asuncion, there are three possible agendas that can be visualized if Mercosur is to have a relevant future. These are interrelated agendas and it would be hard to imagine progress in any one of them unless there is significant progress in the remaining ones. Developing these agendas would update and, to a certain extent, renew Mercosur by making it an instrument that can be perceived as functional to the governance objectives of the South America regional space, to the productive transformation and social cohesiveness of each one of its member countries and to its competitive insertion in a world that is undergoing profound changes, presenting great challenges and opportunities at the same time.

The first agenda is related to fulfilling commitments. It gained strong political momentum last year at the San Juan Mercosur Summit. It is related with the instruments that are considered essential in order to complete the customs union and that, until then, had been "dragging their feet" (among others the customs code, the elimination of the double imposition of the external tariff and the distribution of customs revenue). It includes relevant issues that would render effective the economic preference agreed between the partners to promote productive investment decisions in their respective markets -whatever their size- in relation to the enlarged market. These include government procurement regulations, mechanisms aimed at promoting productive integration and addressing economic asymmetries. This is an agenda that will probably take some time to develop. In any case, next December Mercosur Summit, under the temporary presidency of Uruguay, will prove an opportunity to verify the strength of the political momentum gained in San Juan.

The second agenda concerns Mercosur's transformation, in order to adapt it to the new regional and international realities. It could be called the metamorphosis agenda of a Mercosur that was created under different circumstances form the current ones and from those that can be envisioned for the future. Edgar Morin, French sociologist and philosopher, argues in his book "Ma Gauche" (FB, Paris, 2010) that in view of the need to change, a metamorphosis may allow to reconcile the demands for a radical transformation with the preservation of those assets that remain from previous stages. Somehow the European integration has been and experience of continuous metamorphosis. It has reconciled continuity and change in all of its transformations. If this will continue to be so in the future is the question that is currently being raised given the intensity of the problems it is being confronted with.

Transforming Mercosur while preserving what has already been achieved and those aspects that are essential - for example the willingness of neighboring countries to work together and that while preserving their sovereignty share a regional geographic space with an ever-increasing connectedness- will be no easy task and will demand considerable time. It will require avoiding the temptation of discarding everything that has been achieved so far and thus not being able to profit from the acquired experience.

It may be envisioned as an ongoing task in which each stage will lead to the need for further adaptations. In other opportunities, we have mentioned that those who imagine the voluntary integration between neighboring countries as a brightly lit highway to happiness might be having a too romanticized view of reality. On the contrary, building a region where peace and political stability prevail, with economic and social development and with a relevant presence in the globalized world is not a task that can be finalized in one day, nor one that can be completed with the directions found in textbooks or in models from other regions, neither is it free from unexpected jolts, conflicts and setbacks.

The integration of neighboring countries does not entail sharing everything nor does it eliminate deeply rooted disagreements. However, it does involve implementing a methodology that is based on mutual trust in order to harmonize interests that may be contradictory and to resolve, in accordance with freely agreed rules, any disputes that may impact the evolution of the joint project or the quality of life of the regional neighborhood. It involves, above all, having objective criteria for the differentiation between "us" and "them" which is the essence of this type of process and of the strategic ideas supporting it. All this is not simple, especially considering that, in spite of the economic asymmetries and even of relative power, none of the Mercosur partner countries -as large as it may be- could enforce its will on the others nor become, in actual fact, Mercosur's mouthpiece.

Therefore, the agenda for the transformation of Mercosur will require intense political drive and, most particularly, technical inventiveness. Otherwise, it will be difficult to reconcile, in practice, what is desirable and necessary with what is possible.

After the recent Asuncion Summit, two focal points appear as being central to the development of a transforming agenda. One of them is the semiannual pro tempore presidency, that in this second part of the year corresponds to Uruguay and that next year - and this is not a trivial fact- will be held first by Argentina and later by Brazil. The other is the figure of Mercosur's High Representative-General, a position currently held by the Brazilian diplomat Ambassador Samuel Pinheiro Guimaraes. These are two focal points that, even when different in their levels and functions, will become all the more productive the more they complement each other in their actions.

In Asuncion, Jose Mujica, President of Uruguay, expressed some thoughts that enable us to perceive his priorities as Pro Tempore President of Mercosur for this second semester of the year. From our interpretation these addressed three pivotal points for the metamorphosis of Mercosur.

The first is the diagnosis of the changes that are taking place in the global and regional context. It is clear that the world of today is different from that of the time of Mercosur's foundational moments, be it when the agreements between Argentina and Brazil were signed, or when the political process that led to the signing of the Treaty of Asuncion was launched. It is now a world characterized by a strong dynamic of change and by shifts in the relative power of nations; new relevant actors have emerged -or re-emerged in the case of China and India-; physical, economic and cultural distances have collapsed; the tendency towards multicultural scenarios has accentuated, or -as expressed by Jean-Claude Guillebaud ("Le commencement d'un monde", Seuil, Paris, 2008)- towards a crossbreed modernity in which heterogeneity is the rule; the mesh of productive chains and global and regional social networks has become more thick; it is a world in which the large economic spaces -either individual nations such as China India or the US., or organized regions such as the European Union- coexist with a wide array of small actors of every kind, capable of generating unpredictable and even unimaginable events; finally, it is a world in which there is a dialectic tension between strong forces that drive towards globalization and others that lead to a revaluation of what is local and regional.

The agenda of Mercosur's transformation will have to be based in a joint effort to diagnose the trends and events that have a bearing on the future from the perspective of the region. A fertile ground has opened up for initiatives that lead to articulate networks of competitive intelligence -i.e. the capacity to understand the world around us, the deep forces that are shaping it, the behavior of the key actors, the events that anticipate shifts in the competitive advantages between nations- formed by institutions and teams from the member countries that share their workload while combining the needed national outlook with that of the Mercosur-space. On this aspect, the experience of Ambassador Pinheiro Guimarães as head of the Strategic Affairs Secretariat of the government of President Lula may prove useful. One of the most sophisticated centers of competitive intelligence in the region, the Institute for Advanced Economic Research (Instituto de Pesquisa Econômica Avanzada or IPEA) functions within the scope of this Secretariat. Together with other centers or prospecting groups form the member countries they could articulate the abovementioned diagnostic networks on the dynamics of the changes that are affecting the region and the world.

The second point is that of Mercosur's institutions. These reflect methods and processes that are aimed at harmonizing national interests and creating common ground rules, making sure that they are observed, have an impact on reality and generate the expected results. How to revert the tendency towards a Mercosur that has rules that are perceived as precarious, meaning that even when they have been agreed by all the partners their compliance often depends on the unilateral decision of each one of them depending on the current circumstances and interests? How to materialize institutionally the idea of "us" and "them" in the relations with other countries, at least on the economic front, which is an essential aspect of this type of process, supposedly launched with the creation of Mercosur? How to achieve the ideal scenario where Mercosur can express itself with one single voice, based on previously agreed positions between its members, when participating in international forums, such as the G20 or the WTO, or in international trade negotiations as those that have been taking place for years with the European Union?

One of the fronts that demands the most political drive and technical ingenuity is precisely that related with the ability of the Mercosur partners to express themselves before the world as a unit, if possible as one single voice, at least in those issues related with their common agenda which, in the measure that integration becomes multi dimensional and transcends the commercial or even economic aspect, will tend to be more comprehensive. In practice, the economic and relative power asymmetries between the partners conspire against the achievement of this goal.

The other central point is that of citizenship participation in the development of Mercosur. In the measure that its scope has extended to other topics, aside from the commercial and economic, and that issues linked with society, culture, education, justice and security, among others, are prompting the joint action of the member countries, it will become even more necessary to guarantee a direct link between the decision-making processes of Mercosur and the citizens. It is an issue with multiple possible aspects including that of transparency, the right of access to information, citizen participation in crafting the decisions of their interest and the possibility of electing the representatives at the Mercosur Parliament. It is in this aspect where the idea of exploring the concept of moving towards "digital democracy", brought forward by President Mujica, gains full relevance. In this case, it would mean a leap into a sort of "Mercosur 2.0" that would certainly imply the existence of official web pages of a better quality than those of today.

Finally, the third agenda is related with the national participation of each member country to reflect the strategies of their multiple protagonists acting in their markets and who have vested interests in the Mercosur space. This is just a part of a broader agenda relevant to the insertion of the respective country in the world and aimed at preserving and potentiating national interests. International experience shows that in every integration process between neighboring countries the quality of the national agenda is a key variable to ensure a reasonable balance in the distribution of costs and benefits among the partners. Regional integration implies the existence of countries who know what they need and what they can do, and who have discussed this openly and thoroughly among all the domestic social sectors. This is fundamental at the moment of defining winners and losers.

The three mentioned agendas will now have to face an additional and complex issue which is the start of the process that could lead to the addition of Bolivia and Ecuador, currently only associates, as full members of Mercosur, together with the incorporation of Venezuela, still not formally consummated.

If well managed, the amplification of Mercosur to include new members can be positive for its gravitation in the regional and global scenario. Both Bolivia and Ecuador have, in this sense, much to contribute. However, such expansion will require a consolidation of the hard core that, since the time of its inception, has been formed by the strategic relation between Argentina and Brazil. It will also require delving deep into the issue of the linkage between Mercosur and Unasur.

A Mercosur with four partners that is perceived as credible and effective is something difficult to achieve. However it is not impossible. It will take time. A Mercosur with five or more members poses additional challenges in terms of political leadership and technical resourcefulness. It might require differentiation between the commitments, multiple speeds and variable geometries. It is something feasible if the hard core is perceived as being a strong and solid one.

The success of the metamorphosis and of the eventual enlargement will require for all partners to visualize Mercosur as a common project with a collective leadership adapted to the challenges that will be faced when sailing into the future world. Additionally, it will require a solid articulation at the internal front of each member country so that the end result of the metamorphosis is convenient for their interests and their people. It will also require that citizens regard it as something of their own; that they identify with the joint undertaking and value its symbols; that they feel they can have an effective participation; that their employment, their well-being and their future depends, to a great measure, on the quality of Mercosur.

As the European experience currently shows, this is not easy to achieve, least yet to maintain permanence through time. If there is something that characterizes this kind of integration processes between neighboring nations that share a regional geographic space, is that the end result is not predetermined and that the point of no return is not guaranteed. It would seem inconvenient to generate exaggerated expectations regarding its results. Neither would it be convenient to hide the fact that the distribution of costs and benefits among the partners could eventually turn out to be different from what was expected.

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 information. |

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