Ten years on from the Canning Agenda, CEO of Canning House Cristina Cortes identifies what needs to be done to accelerate the  progress of a revitalised relationship between Latin America and the UK

At Canning House in 2010, Foreign Secretary William Hague introduced the British government’s Canning Agenda which pledged a wholesale revitalisation of the United Kingdom’s relationship with Latin America – to re-build economic relationships, tackle climate change, reinforce educational bridges, and provide Latin America with an international partner.

Historically, the UK had benefited from close relationships with Latin America for over 200 years. British Foreign Minister George Canning – the namesake of both the Canning Agenda and Canning House – supported and was among the first to recognise the independence of the Latin American nations.  As the nineteenth century progressed, bilateral trade and investment blossomed: in 1808, 40 per cent of British exports were bound for Latin America; by 1914, 50 per cent of foreign investment in the region came from the UK, and 20 per cent of its trade.  However, in the aftermath of World Wars I and II, UK attention turned elsewhere; and, by 2010, trade and investment had plummeted to barely 1 per cent and 5 per cent respectively.

In 2010, William Hague sought to reset the clock. “Britain’s retreat from the region is over,” he announced “and it is now time for an advance to begin.” In the years that followed, the UK government has made a concerted effort to increase the UK’s engagement with Latin America – expanding the presence of British embassies across Latin America, appointing Prime Minister’s Trade Envoys to Argentina, Colombia, Chile, Mexicoand Peru, and creating a Trade Commissioner for Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC). British trade visits to the region have increased greatly, leading to some notable successes such as the UK’s leading role in delivering the 2019 Pan American Games in Peru.

So, the effort is not in doubt. However, results over the past 10 years have been mixed. UK service exports to LatAm between 2010 and 2018 rose by 43 per cent, showing especially strong growth across the travel, transport and telecommunications sectors – eg up until the Covid-19 crisis, visits to the UK from Latin American holidaymakers had risen by 75 per cent; while Latin American service exports to the UK almost doubled. However, by contrast, goods exports only increased by 11 per cent (and then only in sterling terms; in dollar terms, they actually fell by 5 per cent) compared to a 40 per cent increase for UK global exports. It should be recognised that all these changes are from a low base. As a share of Latin America’s goods trade, in 2010 the UK represented 1.14 per cent of Latin America’s goods exports and 1.06 per cent of its imports; by 2018, these shares had actually fallen to 0.88 per cent and 0.75 per cent respectively (compared to Germany’s 2 per cent and 4 per cent). Over the same period, the UK’s foreign direct investment in LatAm peaked in 2011 at £3.4 billion per annum, but fell back again to £2 billion by 2018. Undoubtedly, the trade and investment side of the agenda must remain areas of keen focus for the Canning Agenda, and with redoubled energy, going forward.

However, there are certainly grounds for optimism and themes on which to build.

The UK itself and its high-quality goods and services retain a very positive image in Latin America, coupled with a high appreciation for its educational outreach programmes – eg Chevening scholarships and British Council.

As Brexit pivots the UK’s international outlook towards new partnerships, building closer ties with non-EU countries will be critical.  Latin America – with its globally significant population of over half a billion people, who recognise the quality of UK products, greatly value our educational and outreach programmes, and view us very positively relative to our international peers – should stand alongside the US, Indiaand Chinaas key players in UK’s future. In Latin America itself, the view of Brexit is generally one of cautious optimism; a proactive and renewed Canning Agenda would serve to reassure the region that the UK is indeed ready to re-engage. What is more, the Covid-19 and climate crises have illustrated as never before the interconnectedness and interdependence of our interests, and the potential for far more effective, coordinated international cooperation on all fronts.  Such mutually beneficial relationships are precisely what the Canning Agenda and Canning House have always striven to secure.

At this juncture of unprecedented change in the UK’s international relations, the Canning Agenda has rarely been more important. The principal concern held by Latin Americans for the future of the Canning Agenda is that Latin America might once again be allowed to slip down the UK’s priority list. This is where my team at Canning House have a critical role to play. Just as we have for the past decade, and indeed for over 75 years, Canning House will continue to work tirelessly for the betterment of UK-Latin American relations. Over the past 10 years, the enormous potential of the Canning Agenda has been demonstrated – it is now time to realise it fully.

The Canning Agenda and Canning House are inextricably entwined – it is no exaggeration to say that the Agenda is part of Canning House’s DNA – integral to our 75-year mission of building understanding, relationships and business between the UK and Latin America.

Our recently published report ‘The Canning Agenda – 10 Years On’ offers a comprehensive assessment of the Agenda and its future prospects. Once the Covid-19 crisis is over, this report will be followed up with a full conference including government ministers, officials, diplomats and business leaders. In the meantime, the report plus videos from Lord Hague of Richmond and Mark Menzies MP, the PM’s Trade Envoy to Colombia, Chile, Peru and Argentina, can be accessed online on our website www.canninghouse.org

The full text of William Hague’s 2010 speech is available in Canning House: The History, also available to purchase on their website.



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