Mercosur is under considerable internal strain. As at other times in the trade bloc’s history, shifting political winds and changing trade priorities have placed the member countries at loggerheads. The five-member organization is in the midst of what is perhaps the most severe of its periodic identity crises, exacerbated by the Left’s waning power in the region, the rise of the Pacific Alliance, and renewed member interest in external trade agreements.
The most immediate cause of the current tension is the possibility that Venezuela might be given the next six-month term as rotating chair of the organization as early as next week. Foremost among the concerns this raises is the possibility that Venezuela might get in the way of ongoing talks with the European Union (EU). But also lurking in the background is the possibility that with Venezuela in the chair, it will be harder to invoke Mercosur’s “democratic clause” against the Maduro government, which has descended into seemingly intractable crisis and appears intent on sidelining its opposition in a variety of increasingly autocratic ways, including threats to dissolve the National Assembly.
Paraguay has called for barring Venezuela from the chair outright. Uruguay seems intent on upholding the pre-established timetable for rotating the chair, noting that Maduro has not yet acted on his threat against the Assembly. In an emergency mission to Montevideo, a delegation led by Brazilian foreign minister José Serra pushed an intermediary solution, noting that Venezuela has not yet met the terms of Mercosur accession, which it must complete by August. Until it has met the terms of membership, Venezuela would not be eligible for the chair. Argentina has said that it will happily take the chair in the interim.
Brazil’s criticism of the Venezuelan regime’s human rights record and calls for a referendum on Maduro were met earlier this week by the full twittering firepower of the Venezuelan foreign minister. Delcy Rodríguez let loose a barrage of criticism of the “insolent” and “amoral” statements of her “de facto” colleague, Brazilian foreign minister José Serrá. For good measure, she alleged that Brazil has joined the “international right” in its efforts against Venezuela, and called attention to the ongoing “golpe” in Brazil.
Caught up in her twitter tantrum, Rodríguez did not make the stronger argument in Venezuela’s favor: namely, that Brazil’s justifications for temporarily suspending Venezuela seem contrived, given that Venezuela has been permitted to chair the organization once before, and Mercosur has been famously tolerant of member violations of its rules.
Ultimately, the tension within Mercosur is an expression of deeper political changes, including most especially, the shift away from leftist governments with the arrival of the Cartes administration in Paraguay, Macri in Argentina, and Temer in Brazil. The Cartes government harbors deep resentment of the Maduro administration, not least because Paraguay was suspended from the trade bloc under the democratic clause from 2012 to 2013 after the (admittedly questionable) impeachment of Fernando Lugo. Particularly galling to the Paraguayans is the fact that they have staked a great deal on Mercosur—more than 40 percent of imports and 20 percent of exports are to Paraguay’s non-Venezuelan Mercosur partners—even as the Venezuelan Johnny-come-lately seems intent on using the bloc largely as a platform for its regional political pretensions.
Lost in the political scrum is trade. From this perspective, Mercosur continues to be an ambivalent accomplishment. The trade bloc has increased trade among the member countries, but also imposes opportunity costs in terms of foregone trade agreements elsewhere. Meanwhile, although trade today is higher than it was at Mercosur’s inception, it is lower as a percentage of total trade than it was at the peak of intra-Mercosur commerce in the late 1990s. Recognizing this, Argentina and Brazil had already exchanged a number of high-level visits this year before Rousseff’s impeachment, and more recently, Foreign Ministers Serra and Malcorra have reiterated their interest in improving bilateral exchanges and reviving Mercosur.
Mercosur, though, has had enormous difficulty in moving forward on outward oriented trade agreements, including a deal with the EU. Prospects for such a deal might be more positive than in years past, given the rise of the pro-trade agenda in Brazil and Argentina. But the fact is that the EU is—to put it mildly—distracted at the moment. Closer to home, too, the Pacific Alliance is exerting an enormous pull on some Mercosur members. Argentina’s Macri will be a guest at the Pacific Alliance’s presidential summit later this month, and Chile in particular seems eager to build bridges to members of Mercosur.
The foreign ministers of the four original members of Mercosur will meet on Monday, July 11, to discuss the situation in Venezuela. Pushed by Uruguayan foreign minister Rodolfo Nin Novoa, they seem unlikely to invoke the democratic clause against Maduro until or unless there is a more concrete violation of democratic norms. Whatever happens Monday, however, the newly proactive Mercosur is likely to be back in force by early 2017, when Argentina is scheduled to take the helm, beginning a succession of chairs from the center-right governments of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. This has the potential to kickstart the most active eighteen-month window of change in Mercosur since the bloc’s formation in the early 1990s. If it succeeds, Mercosur’s potential may be resurrected. If it fails, the bloc’s long-term prospects will be increasingly in doubt.