The cultural commonality between Europe and Latin America is unmatched. Yet the EU has traditionally tended more toward partnerships with neighbouring regions linked to its own border security, or with political superpowers such as the USA. This feature looks into how Covid-19 vaccine sharing has facilitated global powers, such as China and the EU, in asserting its visibility in the region, Colombia as an example.
The Republic of Colombia is an important partner for the EU in the Latin American context and broadly in the international scene, with demonstrated commitment to mutual objectives, as the UN’s 2030 Agenda. Notwithstanding, the EU’s lacking bilateral political dialogue with Latin American countries has been pointed out by Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, especially when political antagonists are increasing their public diplomacy and investment efforts in the region. A clear example is the construction of the much sought after Bogotá metro by a Chinese government owned company (The World, 5 November 2020), with Bogotá’s mayor Claudia López proclaiming “our relationship with the People’s Republic of China, is just beginning, and with their help we’re going to complete this and probably many other projects” (The World, 5 November 2020).
Borrell warned that “If we want to be a geopolitical power and a global actor, we cannot pretend to be so without being present in Latin America, where there is a young population and extraordinary economic potential” (Atalayar, 28 January 2021). In light of the unprecedented pandemic, Borrell reiterated during the June 2021 Foreign Affairs Council with the EU27’s Foreign Affairs Ministers that: “Latin America is not on our political agenda enough. The COVID-19 situation in Latin America is really appalling, and we have to do more” (EEAS, 21 June 2021). Colombia, for instance, initially received, in March 2021, over 2.5M Sinovac doses from China, 400,242 Pfizer-BioNTech doses from bilateral agreements with manufacturers and an additional 117,000 Pfizer and 244,800 AstraZeneca doses through the COVAX vaccine sharing mechanism (El Pais, 20 March 2021). By August, of the over 36.5M doses received, 3.3M were COVAX, 6M were US donations, 2.1M privately funded Sinovac doses, and the rest via government agreements, including 12M Sinovac, 11.3M Pfizer, 1.4 AstraZeneca and 480k Janssen (Canal Institucional, consulted 9 August 2021). On both accounts, China clearly led early vaccine sharing efforts and currently remains the biggest contributor.
Most relevantly, Chinese media matched this with a public relations campaign to ensure vaccine distribution visibility, declaring “China is the first to provide vaccines to developing countries in need” (Embassy of the People’s Republic of China to the USA, 28 July 2021). While official statements reassured “China does not attach any political strings in carrying out vaccine cooperation” (Embassy of the People’s Republic of China to the USA, 5 August 2021), the impact of such soft power tactics is undeniable in power politics.
Colombia was actually the first country in the Americas to receive vaccines through the COVAX Facility (Pan-American Health Organisation (WHO), 1 March 2021), to which the EU is one of the biggest donors and largest initial financial contributor. Borrell recalled during an April 2021 European Parliament debate that “Through Team Europe, more than €2.4 billion has been devoted to Latin America and the Caribbean. Through COVAX, the EU has helped ensure 38 million vaccines for 30 countries across the Americas” (EEAS, 29 April 2021). Nonetheless, those EU contributions evidently do not arrive with an EU stamp, but rather COVAX. The Commission soon boosted visibility “by slapping EU and national flags on packages and allowing countries to donate to specific, strategically important regions” (POLITICO, 30 July 2021). Spain, for example, already announced it will send “between 5% and 10% of the country’s total vaccine supply to Latin America” (VOA, 13 May 2021). Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also highlighted collective EU efforts by tweeting: “The EU is at the forefront of deliveries of effective vaccines to the rest of the world: So far, more than 200 million doses! As much as have been delivered to Europeans” (Ursula von der Leyen, 6 May 2021)
It is understandable that, in asserting itself as a global geopolitical actor, the EU supports different regions, be it by (thinly) widespread vaccine contributions. Similarly, the US plan to donate 500M Pfizer doses to COVAX (BBC, 11 June 2021) means minimal contributions among the almost 100 low and middle income country recipients.
If the EU’s disaster response help to countries in need is rendered narrow, it must ensure socio-political support is consistent and meaningful. This is where it can distinguish itself from economic driven actors, such as China, in promoting good governance practices, fair human development and in supporting post-COVID economic recovery. The EU cannot forego the strategic importance Latin America carries as a budding and likeminded region. For instance, in parallel to vaccine diplomacy, the EU must maintain and reinforce policy dialogues with the Colombian government on the Peace Process implementation and financing rural development projects. Josep Borrell’s endeavour to hold at least one EU-Latin America summit during his mandate would back this, the last one having taken place in July 2017. It would be a chance to discuss how the EU can support key challenges Latin American partners face (i.e. poverty, social inequality, organised crime) with a view to building resilience and sustainable development. The aim would be to reinforce EU-Latin America relations, complemented by enhanced EU visibility and human rights delivery.
In the long run, early disaster relief from other global powers may overshadow the EU’s multi-annual development cooperation with Latin American, Colombia decidely, in predominantly supporting sustainable and local development progress. Ultimately it comes to a question of China’s effective deliverance versus the EU’s delayed follow-up actions to pledged commitment.
It is up to the EU to go beyond China’s apparent usage of ‘vaccine diplomacy’ or infrastructural bidding for closer ties and allegiance to strategic global actors. As one of the biggest contributors to the COVAX vaccine sharing mechanism (Statista, 5 May 2021) the EU must match visibility efforts, even if country contributions are minimal given widespread action. Most significantly, it must look beyond disaster response and keeping up essential funding and development projects with partner countries.
As global geopolitics moves fast, the EU must not take Latin America for granted as a partner or assume cultural affinity precludes political primacy, as the region slowly but surely associates with competing global actors such as China.