The Mercosur (Common Market of the South) project of integration was built upon the idea of cooperation between states in the Southern Cone of Latin America. In fact, it entailed the creation of a free trade area between Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. This reflected the wave of democratisation that invested in the region in the early 1980s when most of the countries ended their authoritarian past and entered a period characterised by democratically elected governments. Particularly, the rapprochement between the two regional powers Argentina and Brazil — which mutual relations had been conflictive regarding mostly economic issues — paved the way for what would later become the Mercosur. The latter was established mainly with economic ends, however, it managed to keep conflicts between member states under a relatively low threshold. Nevertheless, the very core of Mercosur was put under trial during the Covid-19 pandemic. In that period the region witnessed a resurgence of disputes, mainly between Brazil and the rest of the countries. Covid-19 imposed the need for border control, which sometimes resulted in cross-border tensions. The lack of political cooperation at the Mercosur level was astonishingly clear, and egoistic responses to the pandemic were put in place. This article aims to explore the resurgence of conflict within Mercosur during the pandemic: the first part will briefly explain the Mercosur project and analyse the development of disputes during the pandemic; the second part will explore the political implications of such a situation and the possible causes at the Mercosur level.
Mercosur and the Covid-19
Mercosur is a project of regional integration in Latin America spurred by the rapprochement between Argentina and Brazil in the early 1980s (Caetano, 2011). After a decade characterised by authoritarian governments in both countries, the return to democracy facilitated the cooperation between the two regional powers that signed in 1986 the Treaty of Buenos Aires, establishing a certain degree of economic collaboration. The partnership was later deepened with the negotiations for the establishment of Mercosur, to which Uruguay and Paraguay incorporated, which led to the signing of the Treaty of Asunción in 1991. The structure of Mercosur set up in the Treaty of Asunción — two light decision-making bodies composed of members of the governments of member states — clearly reflects the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean’s (ECLAC) inclination of the time, supporting a type of regionalism based upon economic integration — the so-called “open regionalism” (ECLAC, 1994). Mercosur evolved throughout the years, incorporating some instances of political integration and enlarging its institutional reach (Caetano, 2011). Nevertheless, it remains substantially an intergovernmental international institution, where decisions are taken by the head of governments of member states.
Mercosur has achieved considerable goals in economic terms, enhancing intra-block trade to a considerable extent (Caetano, 2011). However, during periods of economic crisis, the block has undergone considerable internal tensions, mainly in economic terms, with nation-states prioritising their own economy and economic recovery over the regional economy. This was the case during the fin de siècle economic crisis that Brazil and Argentina particularly suffered, and that led to a crisis of the whole block, as the financial emergency was prioritised over the process of integration (Caetano, 2011). Similarly, the Covid-19 pandemic precipitated the whole block into a crisis of integration and spurred the resurgence of conflicts within the block. As it happened all over the world, the pandemic imposed within Mercosur a renewed interest in border controls to prevent the spread of the virus. The issue was increasingly urgent in the block for Brazil — led by president Bolsonaro and his refusal of undertaking drastic policies to constraint the virus — was one of the countries with the fastest propagation in the world. All three countries of Mercosur have borders in common with Brazil and implemented extraordinary measures to prevent the cross-border spread of the pandemic. The need to constrain the porosity of borders led to some tensions that sometimes involved the action of the military, although it was never even close to escalating to an armed conflict. Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay all claimed that the access of Brazilians had to be prevented by all means in order to preserve the nation from the spread of the virus.
The governor of the Argentinian province of Misiones claimed that the Brazilian border had to be seen as a threat since the spread of the disease was uncontrollable in the bordering country. For this reason, he implemented measures involving the action of military patrols to impede trespassing on the border that was officially closed by the beginning of the pandemic (La Nacion, 2020). Uruguay also found itself in a difficult position concerning the border with Brazil, specifically regarding the city of Rivera. The continuous trespass of the border by Brazilian citizens contributed — according to the local authorities — to the steep growth of infection rates, plunging the city into a situation of critical lack of beds in local hospitals (Clarìn, 2021). This led the competent authorities to use the army to patrol the border area. Paraguay perhaps underwent the tensest situation in the border area with Brasil. Emergency enlistment was in fact put in place in the region of the Alto Paraná, and the army was actively engaged in building “defensive” facilities along the border to prevent Brazilian citizens to enter the country (Frenkel, 2020). The tension occasionally escalated to open confrontations between military patrols and people willing to illegally cross the border.
Even though — as it must once again be stressed — such tensions along the internal borders of Mercosur never threatened the peaceful arrangement in the region, it must be noted how they emerged. Mercosur, in fact, was unable as an institution to handle the Covid-19 crisis as a united block, leading to frictions between member countries that enacted nation-based policies without looking at the sake of regional integration. The next section will examine some elements of Mercosur that are partially the cause of the resurgence of border conflicts in the region.
Mercosur: Integration to What Extent?
As briefly mentioned above, Mercosur was conceived mainly as an economic project (Caetano, 2011). Like the European Union, in fact, it spurred from the idea that integrated economies work better in the context of a competitive world market. As the Treaty of Asunción clearly states, the aim of Mercosur is to provide the insertion of the regional economies into the world market (Tratado de Asuncion, 1991). In the Treaty there is little attention to political — and even less to social — integration and, in any case, it was provided only functionally to economic integration (Uriarte, 2003). This is not surprising, because the rationale underpinning this kind of regional integration was the same fostered by the ECLAC, claiming that economic integration would be shortly followed by social and political integration (ECLAC, 1994). This inclination was clearly inspired by a liberal strand of thought, arguing that economic integration would set the conditions for political integration to flourish (Börzel, 2016). However, contrary to the expectations of liberals, political integration was never a priority within Mercosur, which led some scholars to define it as an example of Phoenician integration (Caetano, 2011), highlighting the priority given to trade over politics. Even though social actors — such as trade unions — have argued that furthering social and political integration within Mercosur was a priority, it remained essentially an intergovernmental international institution (Carrau, 2008). Decisional power, in fact, remained and still is in the hands of intergovernmental bodies, composed of the presidents or the ministries of finance of the member states. Both the Council of the Common Market and the Group of the Common Market — the two executive organs of Mercosur — are composed of government-designated officials (Mercosur, s.d.).
This weak institutional structure clearly allows member states to engage in egoistic policies, in case economic cooperation inherently implied in Mercosur is no longer, or momently is not, an advantage. The Covid-19 crisis was definitely not handled in a joint and coherent way within the framework of Mercosur, to the point that borders were closed promptly, with decisive repercussions on the economic sphere (Frenkel, 2020). The Mercosur decisional bodies were not even remotely able to coordinate joint policies regarding the management of the pandemic (Frenkel, 2020). Countries were caught in what Frenkel (2020) defines as a “prisoner dilemma“, in which cooperation is the best choice, but it only works if all parties agree to cooperate. The coordination of a joint policy at the regional level to manage the emergency would indeed have been more effective, but in order for it to work cooperation of all actors was required, and Bolsonaro’s Brazil was not likely to curb its radical choice of prioritising its internal economy over the health emergency. The inadequateness of Mercosur to constitute a forum to coordinate health policies led to a situation in which Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay were determined at protecting their borders at all costs from infiltration of possible Brazilian citizens that were more likely to be infected as in their country there barely were restrictions. Understandably, such a conjecture was likely to lead to some tensions around the borders, since during the pandemic the very meaning of border within Mercosur changed. Regional integration transformed borders into areas of integration and interchange (Baud, 2004), but the Covid-19 pandemic revived the idea of borders as dangerous areas that need to be protected and patrolled, which can pave the way to tensions and conflicts.
The fact that economic integration is at the very core of the Mercosur project seriously hinders the possibility for it to be a political institution able to coordinate policies in critical periods, and the pandemic was an example. Political cooperation is not a priority of Mercosur, as established by its founding Treaty (Tratado de Asuncion, 1991), and therefore the management of crises is likely to lead to conflicts in the border regions for nation-states are encouraged to act egoistically.
Mercosur was established in 1991, underpinned by the rapprochement between Argentina and Brazil that had left behind their conflictual past. The founding Treaty focuses mainly on economic aspects, and political integration was only seen to facilitate trade and economic cooperation. This was in line with the ECLAC’s conception of open regionalism. The conflict between member states was constrained under a considerably low threshold throughout the years. Nevertheless, the Covid-19 pandemic spurred the revival of tensions around the internal borders of Mercosur. This does not mean that the option of an armed conflict ever opened up. However, it must be noted that political tensions took place between Brazil and the other three members of Mercosur that considered the Brazilian border as a danger, as the spread of the disease in Brazil was not under control. The Mercosur institutional structure resulted to be highly inefficient to handle the situation, for it provides the conditions for governments to act selfishly.
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