The European Union Under Scrutiny: A Latin American Inspiration

The European Union Under Scrutiny: A Latin American Inspiration


Written by John De Coster, Member of Libertas Editorial Team 


A short while ago, I turned in my master thesis and successfully defended my dissertation before a joint jury of the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB, Brussels) and the Libera Università Internazionale degli Studi Sociali (LUISS, Rome). I set out to dissect Cuba’s role and developmental strategies within the Comunidad de Estados Latinoamericanos y Caribeños (CELAC), which has largely been described as the new face of Latin American regionalism based on new forms of regional integration and cooperation. Characterised by the exclusion of the United States and Canada, the CELAC set up an alternative regional governance breaking away from the so-called Washington Consensus. Instead, the community set sail on a neodevelopmental path whose foundation and possibilities have yet to be defined and understood by the scientific community. What can European liberals learn from overseas regional dynamics?


Eurocentric Bias When Studying Regional Integration

As I am sure many of you will know, the European Union is the world prominent example of deep integration. The economic and political processes that have led the Old Continent’s institutions to their current architecture have been thoroughly studied by now, and still constitute the focus of a great many graduate and postgraduate academic programs. However, the academia’s eagerness to directly link regional integration with the European Union cripples a whole field of study with a sort of Eurocentrism, filtering out what should and what should not be considered as integration, strictly speaking. Indeed, scholars often give in to a teleological preconception that dictates that an integrative process must eventually lead to supranationalism, a strong, expanding technocratic institutionalisation and the exclusivity of certain policy domains. As a result, integration unavoidably points in the direction of the European model, erected as both an example and a blueprint (Battistella, 2015; Riggirozzi, 2012).

This unwavering confidence in the EU’s design and resilience carries significant practical and theoretical pitfalls with it. Even more so given the subsequent crises that our Union has faced since the turn of the second millennium. The Euro Zone crisis in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis or the migration crisis in light of worsening instabilities in Africa and the Middle East to only name a couple. Although its effects are more diffused, one could also mention the regrettable democratic regression that is taking hold in some of our member states. Lastly, the post-COVID-19 context has many worried with respect to both the Commission and the European Council’s handling of the EU’s recovery plan. From a descriptive point of view, the EU faces some political hardships. More importantly still, from a prescriptive point of view, it has become crucial to recognise that the EU’s exemplarity has eroded and that it seems to be running out of breath. A common will to Renew Europe is a first step. But our reflection must delve much deeper into the Union’s ultimate spirit.


“Regionness” and Its Typological Diversity

Freed from the functionalist straitjacket regarding the study of (European) regionalism, which posits the centrality of sectoral economic agreements and their respective spillovers that nudge states towards a deeper institutionalisation (Battistella, 2015), integration ultimately is about construction. One must seek to build an identity and a community of interest if one wishes states, societies and peoples to integrate. One must also inject meaning in the process, about what “the region is” and “what the region is for”. In order to escape the conceptual flaws I have just discussed, one can thus approach regional integration through the notion of regionness, defined “in terms of organised social, political and economic trans-border relations (material foundations of regionalism), supported by a manifested sense of belonging, common goals and values (symbolic foundations), and institutions and regulations that enhance the region’s ability to interact autonomously in the international arena (external recognition as an actor)” (Hettne & Söderbaum, in Riggirozzi, 2012).

Consequently, the emergence of a rigid institutionalised regional actor (or body of actors) is but one possible outlet of regionalism. In this sense, “institutions” are approached from an ideational perspective, stressing their normative and cooperative nature rather than their organisational materiality. With such a flexible baseline, integration gets polymorphic and open-ended, as integration rests primarily on ideas, ideals and shared norms (Duffield, 2007; Emerson, 2014; Riggirozzi, 2012, Wendt, 1992). These are much more than sterile theoretical considerations, as it better reflects the reality of current forms of regionalism and offers reading keys to better comprehend what regionalism really entails. It also attributes some validity and recognition to other types of genuine integrative schemes, that is other types of regionness.


CELAC’s Model of Regionalism

Such an innovative framework was necessary if I was to explore the functioning of the CELAC. It was born from a general concern related to Latin America’s vast diversity in international organisations and integration mechanisms. Created through the fusion of the Rio Group (1987) and the Latin American Summit on Integration and Development (CALC, 2008), two initiatives that sought to promote political consultation and coordination in the region, the CELAC was expected to unify and harmonise Latin America’s and the Caribbean integrative landscape.

Markedly, the community favoured intergovernmentalism and “mutually beneficial” cooperation rather than supranationalism and strict integration. As a matter of fact, the CELAC does not have any distinctive autonomous institutions. It works almost entirely based on rounds of presidential summits presided by the member state holding the pro tempore presidency. On the daily, the CELAC is coordinated by the Troïka (the former, the present and the next pro tempore presidencies), which summons specialised meetings and mandates working groups whose declarations and recommendations foster the CELAC regional governance. Said governance is then carried out by bilateral or triangular agreements between member states.

What the CELAC’s governance comprises deserves a little more attention. Latin America and the Caribbean do not aim at the creation of a common market or trade liberalisation. The community is after a fairer access to the world economy, one that acknowledges structural inequalities and weaknesses, as well as a better representation of developing countries in the international community (IMF, UN, WB, etc). Therefore, the CELAC’s core values are solidarity and interstate complementarity (which differs from the European understanding of subsidiarity). It pursues a neodevelopmental agenda referring to massive public policies and public investments targeting infrastructure, innovation and research and development (Flexor, et al., 2017) as a means to reach the needed technological advancement that will increase the region’s industrial specialisation and efficiency. The CELAC’s regionalism is also a social kind of regionalism (Briceño Ruiz, 2013) given the community’s focus on education, health provision and the reduction of poverty and social inequalities as the top political priorities.

From what precedes, it is quite clear that the CELAC’s political inclinations somewhat mirror Latin America’s Pink Tide and its leftist tendencies, which have taken over the continent since the beginning of the 2000s. Academically speaking, my intention was never to probe whether a socialist bend to regional integration and cooperation was preferable. Nor did I have any business in asserting the sustainability or the overall (developmental) efficiency of its governance. My goal was to give some credit to a new form of regionalism, as well as the novelty and coherence of its ideational bedrock which conveys such strength to a bewildering project moving forward. Politically speaking, in turn, my research offers an extremely valuable lesson.


“Utopia for liberals”

Ideas go a long way. For Latin America and the Caribbean, it has meant the emergence of a new regional and developmental model which evades the US inspired neoliberal policies. Swimming back to our shores, our future too, lies on a bed of new bold ideas. Paraphrasing Rutger Bregman (2017), what European liberals need today is a new “utopia for liberals” and find a way to get there.

What we can learn from this Latin American regional experience is that technicalities will not make the cut. Of course, we can keep on interrogating why our Union has got so rusty and stern. Of course, we can come up with new policies. We can even imagine new fields in which the EU should deploy its reach and plea for an upwards shift of exclusive and shared competences to be handed to the Commission. However, we then risk becoming even more bureaucratic, technocratic and problem-solving. Maybe now is the time to seek for inspiration elsewhere.

Renew Europe will succeed only if it manages to breathe a new life into the European Union. If it manages to construct and spread new ideals that speak directly to our people. These troubled times call for a liberal sense of solidarity, and a liberal sense of complementarity. We should probably also revalue our cooperative and collaborative spirit, as a springboard towards long-term integration. Because cooperation is not simply a system. It is an attitude. And because an integrated European Union is a union that is self-aware that its optimum is only attainable through trust, solidarity and complementarity between our member states.



BATTISTELLA, Dario (2015) Théories des relations internationales, Paris, Presses de Science Po, 5e édition (mise à jour)

BRICEÑO RUIZ, José (2013) « Ejes y modelos en la etapa actual de la ingtegración económica regional en América Latina », Estudios Internacionales N°175, Universidad de Chile, p. 9-39

DUFFIELD, John (2007) « What are international institutions », International Study Review, 9(1), p. 1-22

EMERSON, R. Guy (2014), « An Art of the Region: Towards a Politics of Regionness », New Political Economy, 19(4), p. 559-577

FLEXOR, Georges, DIAS DA SILVA, Robson, and PINTO, Jenifer (2017) « Le Nouveau Développementalisme : Propositions et Limites », Cahiers des Amériques latines [Online] n°85, Retrieved December 12, 2018, p. 51-69

RIGGIROZZI, Pía (2012) « Region, Regionness and Regionalism in Latin America: Towards a New Synthesis », New Political Economy 17(4), p. 421-443

RUTGER, Bregman (2017) Utopia For Realists, London, Bloomsburry Libri

WENDT, Alexander (1992) « Anarchy is what States make of it: The social construction of power politics », International Organization 46(2), p. 391-425


About the author: 

John De Coster is 24 years old and he was born and raised in Brussels. For about three years, he was one of LYMEC’s member through the Belgian French-speaking « Fédération des Etudiants Libéraux » (FEL). Since then, despite having to renounce any involvement in said organisation, he has tried to keep a foothold in LYMEC’s circles. Entering our editorial team through Libertas then appeared to be a rather stimulating and thrilling experience. Plus writing can be fun!


posted on

July 22 2020

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