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POLITICS-LATIN AMERICA/EU: Patten Spells Out Vision for 'New Partnership'

By Brian Kenety

BRUSSELS, Nov 3 (IPS) - Christopher Patten, European Union (EU) Commissioner for External Relations, is calling for a new partnership with Latin America with greater emphasis on supporting democracy, human rights, and the fight against poverty within the context of regional integration and growth.
Patten will visit Brazil, Argentina and Chile from Nov. 6 - 10 in connection with the third round of EU negotiations with the Mercosur (Southern Common Market) trade bloc, of which Chile is a ''political'' but not an ''economic'' member. His talks will also focus on the follow-up to the 1999 EU- Latin America Summit in Rio.

In a speech Thursday in Madrid before the Casa de América, Patten noted that ''the dark days of fiscal imbalances and high inflation'' in the region were over and that with an improved economic picture, the democratic process had also blossomed, and along with it transparency and accountability in government.

''It is time to adapt our policy to the new reality of the two regions: it is time to create a new partnership for a new century'', he said, offering five avenues for helping to reshape and modernise EU-Latin American relations.

Firstly, said Patten, this means that the EU should play a greater role in supporting efforts to develop democracy and stability in the region, especially through the promotion of human rights.

He gave Colombia and Peru as concrete examples of Latin American countries where formal democracy has taken root but where this development ''means little'' unless it is accompanied by political stability, an independent press, transparency, accountability, respect for ethnic minorities and an unyielding fight against corruption.

''Where this is lacking, it must now become the main target of our political efforts,'' said Patten.

He cited the 321-million-euro financial aid package to Colombia that the EU and its separate member states announced last week, its ''active'' support of the Organisation of American States in calling for fresh elections in Peru next spring - and a possible pre-electoral EU technical assistance package to Lima - as evidence that the grouping is ''already playing its part in encouraging democracy and stability in the region''.

Patten has proposed the creation of an EU-Latin America/Caribbean discussion forum for the promotion and protection of human rights. In a communication this week, the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, stressed that human rights should become one of the three EU priorities in implementing the results of the 1999 EU-Latin America Rio Summit.

''Through our commitment to human rights we can help explode the absurd notion that there is a tension between commercial interests and active support for freedom. It has long been clear to me that the freest societies are also the best places to do business,'' said Patten.

''We want a new comprehensive approach to poverty alleviation in the follow-up to the Rio Summit. I have proposed this week an EU-Latin America/Caribbean-wide 'Social Initiative', involving all public and social actors, in order to share experiences and best practices for the reduction of social imbalances and assistance for the most vulnerable groups,'' he said.

''A fair distribution of wealth and the elimination of poverty makes sense economically as well as politically and morally,'' said Patten, noting that increasing business opportunity ''can never be an end in itself''.

Latin America, and particularly Mercosur (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay - plus Chile and Bolivia as political members with association agreements on free trade) have been, in the late 1990s, one of the fastest growing markets for EU exporters.

Europe's investment in Latin America has increased tenfold since the beginning of the 1990s and in 1998 represented 34 billion euros or 15 percent of all European foreign direct investment - as much as was invested in Eastern Europe, the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean and ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) together.

''It is not all roses. There are signs that the investment trend is levelling out. And European investment in Latin America tends to focus on too narrow a set of sectors: banking, finance and public utilities,'' noted Patten.

The EU is now engaged in comprehensive negotiations with Mercosur and also with Chile to establish a bilateral free-trade area, to open up new market opportunities and to establish clearer rules for entrepreneurs.

The Commission noted in a memo released on Oct. 31 that during recent months some politicians in Mercosur countries have accused the EU of not being committed enough to the negotiating process leading up to this third round and it has clearly been trying to dispel that notion.

The current relationship between the EU and Mercosur-Chile is based on the 1995 and 1996 Framework Co-operation Agreements, aimed at the preparation of Association Agreements with the European grouping. These are meant to include a liberalisation of all trade in goods and services, aiming at free trade, in conformity with World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules.

The negotiations that will take place in Brasilia and Santiago will focus on economic co-operation in the case of Mercosur and social and cultural as well as scientific and technical co-operation in the case of Chile.

Patten said that among his main priorities were for the EU to give ''clearer and broader support'' to these regional and sub-regional initiatives in Latin America and promote the growth of European business throughout the region.

In the Commission's statement this week the EU executive body said it would focus on three short-term key priorities at the regional level: the promotion and protection of human rights, the creation of an Alliance for the Information Society and the establishment of the joint ''Social Initiative'' that Patten highlighted.

The Commission proposes the setting-up of a new discussion forum to identify difficulties, pool experiences and examine new methods of co- operation, in order to submit proposals for a set of positive measures for the 2002 Summit.

In the economic field, the Commission proposes the creation of an Alliance for the Information Society to promote the benefits of using information technologies, to fight the digital divide to create a regulatory dialogue, to increase research interconnection capacity and to foster human resource training, with pilot projects to be identified in 2001.

In the area of co-operation, the EU proposes to open up a new avenue in development co-operation by setting up an EU-Latin America/Caribbean ''Social Initiative'' in order to address social imbalances by identifying difficulties in tackling them, sharing best practices leading to new co- operation approaches and elaborating actions for adoption at the next Summit.

These three priorities were chosen in order to respond to the main challenges of the region by presenting a coherent package of initiatives in areas that are interrelated and cover the three dimensions of the strategic partnership (political, economic, and social). These initiatives are in line with existing key priorities and represent fields where the Commission is already active and has gained useful experience, said the statement. (END/IPS/IP/IF/bk/da/00)


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