Latin American cooperation towards the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires

Photo: Obelisk Buenos Aires

What might become of Latin America’s presence in the G20 following Argentina’s presidency? If previous attempts to forge a common platform for Argentina, Brazil and Mexico have not left a lasting memory, perhaps this time around it looks different? Indeed, the Sherpas decided to tighten dialogue since fall 2017 with the view to “translate different regional outlooks into a representative stance” that hopefully could spill over onto the next G20 presidency.

It remains to be seen whether Argentina’s early “active, inclusive and pragmatic” approach will translate into greater political goodwill on the side of the other G20 partners to address some of the priorities set forward by this presidency.

Latin America in the G20

According to Jorge Argüello, president of Fundación Embajada Abierta in Argentina and former ambassador to the United States (US) and the United Nations: “By not being able to define a common regional agenda, the Latin American bloc […] has struggled to incorporate Latin American priorities into the global agenda and has thus faced an additional historical disadvantage in G20 debates.” He points out that “care of natural resources and the fair commercialization of raw materials; the promotion of human resources and quality employment; investment in housing, education and health; and unrestricted respect for the right to migrate” are topics of great relevance for this region and could well be included on the G20 agenda.

For their part, Heidi Lough and Juan Cruz Díaz, both at Cefeidas Group in Buenos Aires, argue that “A common belief in the need for a regional voice existed in Hamburg. However, internal difficulties—notably a recently reshuffled foreign ministry in Argentina, and tumultuous political events in Brazil—complicated the ability to put forward a coherent, shared vision.” They conclude: “Argentina should seize the opportunity to provide the regional leadership needed to work toward Latin American alignment on key global issues.”

“The Latin American G20 agenda” through Argentina’s priorities

President Macri has expressed the ambition to make sure the G20 sits close to its professed goal of maintaining international financial stability through global financial and macroeconomic governance. This implies focusing on traditional “hard politics” during summits, alongside coordination on the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (comprising 17 Sustainable Development Goals), migration and terrorism. The priorities for Argentina’s G20 presidency are, in fact, of much wider relevance than the mere label “Latin American G20 agenda”: future of work in the digital age, sustainable infrastructure for development, and sustainable food future/food security. The fight against corruption tied to discussions on economic growth is another likely issue among the “top items” of this G20 presidency.

A common challenge for the big emerging economies like Brazil and Mexico is automation of low-skilled jobs and the need for investing more in Research and Development and Innovation to meet this transition and improve participation in global value chains. Facing rapid advances in technological development, digitalization and Artificial Intelligence, the G20 should provide with stronger endorsement of challenges confronting the public and private sectors of employment and education, and seek to pinpoint their needs (thereby by extension putting pressure on national governments to invest more in these areas). At the G20 Meeting of Foreign Affairs Ministers in Buenos Aires on May 20-21, 2018 (third time this happened in the G20’s history), when it came to the 2030 Agenda, Mexico’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs Luis Videgaray “underscored the impact of new technologies in sustainable development, especially artificial intelligence”. He encouraged the G20 members to take part in the UN Science, Technology and Innovation Forum, concluding that G20 “clearly has a role to play in this area”.

The future of food (security) is of particular relevance for a country relying on agricultural exports for its economic growth. Obviously, the Southern Cone countries and Brazil sharing similar dependency as Argentina would not fare well with increasing protectionist measures imposed by the US. There is also the issue of nailing down the preferential trade agreement between Mercosur and the EU (sensitive issues are import quotas on beef and ethanol). It will be interesting to see how the WTO ministerial conference in Buenos Aires in December will pick up on possible declarations by the G20 on these topics (or, perhaps, the absence thereof); trade and investment liberalization, multilateralism and protectionism.

Certainly, Argentina’s G20 presidency may prove beneficial for South America as a whole, but the domestic political-economic context for President Macri’s ambition to put Argentina on the G20 map could have been brighter, and relying on supposedly good interpersonal relations with US President Donald Trump might not make any difference at the negotiation table. As Guy Edwards, research fellow and co-director of the Climate and Development Lab at Brown University put it: “Argentina’s G20 presidency is a bittersweet moment for President Macri. It is a big opportunity to advance Argentina’s foreign policy goals such as improving relations with the United States and Europe and rejuvenating Mercosur. It is also wrought with difficulties. […] On free trade and climate change, Argentina can improve relations with Europe and China while integrating the Paris Agreement into its G20 presidency. On climate change, Argentina is well placed to advance the G20’s agenda.” In fact, Argentina was the first country to submit a revised national climate action plan as part of the Paris Agreement. The linking of discussions on the future of work with the shift to a low-carbon economy, for forthcoming G20 presidencies, could hopefully be reckoned as a major contribution by this G20 presidency.

Prospects for a “Latin American G20 agenda”

If “Latin America’s G20 agenda is the G20’s agenda”, this aspiration has to be pondered in relation to specific country challenges: Can President Macri weather the storm of the crisis-ridden economy and corruption scandals involving past and present political leaders? What effects will Mexico’s next President López Obrador’s ambiguous rhetoric regarding neoliberal economic principles have on the G20 members? What will be the outcome of Brazil’s general election in October (the uncertainty regarding the “Lula factor”)? Given these uncertainties, it might be too early to talk about a distinct “Latin America agenda in the G20”, but, if during future G20 presidencies, the three members manage to hold a common front in specific topics that were reflected in Argentina’s G20 presidency; especially future of work in the digital age coupled with the shift to a low-carbon economy, sustainable infrastructure for development and food security, and safeguarding multilateralism, then this drive could hopefully withstand conjunctural external pressures and translate into a lasting effort.

The situation of “G19 + 1” is very unfortunate when certain themes are being discussed in the G20 (climate change, trade), nevertheless, the Argentinian G20 team should push for the importance of keeping the US engaged with the club. Then, the collective agony of markets and states following the Brexit referendum and the uncertainty whether Britain actually will leave the European Union or not is yet another example of economic nationalism and crisis for multilateralism. A common problem for both developed and developing countries is precisely the integration of migrants on the job market, where structural failures produce increasing poverty and socioeconomic inequality. Therefore, the issue of inclusive, sustainable growth coming from investments in (higher) education, R&D and Innovations, sustainable infrastructure is a particularly suitable “connection” with the 2030 Agenda. Here, the G20 Development Working Group (DWG) plays an essential role for encouraging a cross-cutting perspective on this process across all G20 work streams.

Next year, Buenos Aires will host the Second High-level United Nations Conference on South-South Cooperation (known as BAPA+40 Conference), from 20 to 22 March 2019, and as part of the G20 troika then, it is likely that Argentina will push for this item on the G20 agenda.

Lastly, there is a proposal in the making to design a particular initiative targeting The Caribbean countries, pushed for by Mexico, in particular, together with Argentina and Brazil that hopefully could find its way to the final declaration of the G20 summit in November, thereby procuring a “Latin American badge”. Focus is on resilience, prevention of natural disasters, and other climate change-related actions. Being an agenda-setter but not an implementer, the G20 can send a joint message to home audiences and target audiences but then it is up to national policy-makers to follow suit. At least, initiatives like this one that seek to escape short-term interests but rather aim for medium and long-term ambitions, is a sign that the G20 is concerned with sustainable commitments.

Image: Rebecka Villanueva Ulfgard

Rebecka Villanueva Ulfgard is an Associate Professor for International Studies at the Instituto Mora, Mexico City.

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