Argentine President Alberto Fernández told his Uruguayan counterpart Luis Lacalle Pou his country did not want to be “a burden on anyone” when the latter called for signs of “flexibilization” on the part of Mercosur to allow member states to seek unilateral foreign trade agreements elsewhere without the bloc's approval.
Fernández' outburst went on: the easiest thing is to get off the ship if that burden is too heavy.
The incident took place during the online summit among the Mercosur leaders to mark the 30th Anniversary of the bloc's foundation. Also taking part in the encounter were the presidents of the other two founding nations: Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro and Paraguay's Mario Abdo Benítez, while Presidents Luis Arce, from Bolivia, and Sebastián Piñera, from Chile, also participated as leaders of associate member countries.
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Fernández became some sort of a lone ranger fencing off the other three full-member leaders' demand for commercial pragmatism to meet the needs of the people, namely more free trade agreements and less barriers, including lowering of the Common External Tariff.
Lacalle pressed for a technical and political definition regarding flexibility, so that it is not a burden on the countries and Fernández replied: If we are a burden, let them board another ship, but we are nobody's burden.
The Uruguayan leader stressed the need “to advance in the international arena and underscored that his country deserved to act freely.
Obviously Mercosur does carry some weight, obviously its production carries some weight at the international concert, what should not and cannot be is that it is a burden, we are not willing to make it a corset, said Lacalle, who added that the bloc has had more successes than errors, but our peoples, our people, in my case the Uruguayan people, demand from us opportunities to progress ... at different levels and this government feels that it has to respond to that cry of its citizens and responding to that cry means no harm against the interests of other peoples.
A Mercosur administrative decision from the year 2000 provides that no Mercosur member may sign agreements with any third States without the approval of the other members, which makes the Souther Cone Customs and trade association one of the most narrow-access blocks worldwide.
Fernández was a one-man voice against lowering the common external tariff. We do not believe that the linear reduction of the external tariff is the best instrument. Argentina proposes to preserve the balance between agricultural and industrial sectors, with social justice, in a context of absolute global uncertainty, he said.
Then Fernández tried to round up his participation: May we all feel like brothers. If we have become something else, a burden, I am sorry. We did not want to be a burden to anyone. That gets one thrown out of the boat and the easiest thing to do is get off the ship if that load weighs too much. Let's put an end to those ideas that do little to help the unit. We don't want to be anybody's ballast. If we are a ballast, let them take another ship, okay? in a clear invitation to the other members of the bloc to leave if they so wanted.
Lacalle's words against Fernández were indirectly aimed at his own constituency as he criticized his colleague for choosing to hold this summit virtually and not in person. Argentina is the country in charge of the group's pro-tempore presidency. The Uruguayan president would clearly have preferred a personal encounter to allow for some informal talks rather than stick to on-screen performances.
We have to deepen the free trade zone, we have aspects in daily life, in daily life, that continue to somehow become more complex in the free trade zone. We agree to review the common external tariff (...) We have to continue in the effort of transport and logistics, with all the presidents we have met we have talked about the waterways,” said Lacalle. “I think it is a time when our countries have a lot to advance, he added.
The Argentine government explained later on Friday that the president's words were aimed at his colleague and not at the people the Uruguayan people of Uruguay, adding that Lacalle had displayed incredible virulence and that he had skidded” (gone off track).
Neither country has so far reached out to the other to mend things up.
Bolsonaro too differed from Fernández, but made a quiet, brief speech. He spoke of the importance of the review of the bloc's external tariff, and stated that he wants this to be discussed soon. He also agreed with Lacalle on the bloc's need for flexibility. The consensus rule cannot be a permanent veto weapon. Brazil wants to count on the support of the other members to expand the bloc's network of commercial partners. Argentina and Brazil have been discreetly talking about the possibility of lowering the common external tariff in some sectors. The talks have not yet matured but Paraguayans and Uruguayans are oblivious to them.
But he had already signed off, even left the presidential Planalto palace when Lacalle and Fernández clashed.
Abdo Benítez for his part sided with Brazil and Uruguay regarding flexibility, as he favoured external negotiations that are joint and coordinated, but that are not a barrier to our development.”
In his own speech, Fernández stressed that the results must be to attract investment and income, so that we can participate in global value chains, and urgently overcome the difficulties of the pandemic. He called on his peers to redouble their efforts and deepen the will to walk together. Fernández also spoke of a citizenship statute, but the exact meaning of the expression remains to be clarified.