When this government came together as a coalition 18 months ago, we launched a new effort to extend British diplomacy in the world, building stronger ties with its fastest growing regions and nations. In particular, we knew we wanted to strengthen our relations with the emerging powers.
It has been a year since William Hague became the first Foreign Secretary to give the Canning Lecture. In this speech he set out his vision for a step change in the UK’s relations with Latin America, building on our considerable historical links with the region. Our re-engagement with Latin America is a long-term project at the heart of UK foreign policy plans. And the rationale for engaging with Latin America is as strong, if not stronger, than it was 12 months ago.
In an uncertain financial world, Latin America stands out as a beacon of stability. As a whole, Latin America grew by over six per cent in 2010 and the region enjoys economic growth rates forecast at between four and five per cent for the next five years. It has been rated as an easier place to do business than many other emerging markets.
Brazil is predicted to be the fifth largest economy in the world and Mexico the fifteenth by 2016. High-growth Latin America needs to be part of the UK’s export-led economic recovery. It has a larger middle class than China and India combined, bringing a wide variety of important commercial opportunities and a space to develop deeper cultural and educational links. By 2020, the region will represent eight per cent of the global economy with 648 million consumers. Yet at the moment only 1.4 per cent of UK exports reach Latin America. We need to change this.
However, trade is not the only reason why Latin America matters to the UK. Our relationship is built on a long history and shared values. The region is playing an increasingly influential role on the international stage, on issues that matter to us: from climate change to UN Security Council Reform; from the Arab Spring to international development.
We have already seen the important role that the region has played internationally – most recently with Mexico’s hosting of the Cancun Climate Change Conference. Next year will be no exception as Brazil hosts the Rio+20 Summit, Mexico assumes the G20 presidency and Chile holds the EU-Latin America and Caribbean Summit.
So where are we?
Developing stronger government-to-government relations has been at the heart of our efforts. In the 12 months prior to the Foreign Secretary’s speech there were just nine visits by UK ministers to Latin America. Including my own visit to Mexico, Panama and Costa Rica last month, there will have been 29 ministerial visits to Latin America in the past 12 months, including two business delegations led by the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg. In every country we have been received warmly, openly and with generous hospitality. I am pleased to have been able to visit the region enough to build strong relationships with many ministers. I am equally pleased that many of them have visited the UK – we have recently hosted the Foreign Ministers of Mexico, Colombia and Uruguay and several others have visited their counterparts in other ministries. We will continue to maintain this momentum.
We have also put our money where our mouth is. At a time when all FCO departments are having to make savings, we are increasing our diplomatic footprint in Latin America. We will soon open a new Embassy in El Salvador and a new Consulate-General in Recife in Brazil. We are sending more staff to Bogota, Buenos Aires, Lima, Mexico City, Panama City, Rio, Santiago and São Paulo. Their role will be pivotal to build partnerships in energy, trade policy, science and innovation, education, public procurement and other areas important to the UK and Latin American countries.
We are on track to meet our ambitious commercial objectives to double our exports to Brazil to £4 billion and our trade to Mexico to £4.2 billion by 2015. So far this year, UK exports to Brazil and Mexico have grown by 15 per cent and 13 per cent respectively. Twenty UK companies have won contracts relating to the 2014 World Cup or 2016 Rio Olympics. We have also set up a Mexico Chamber of Commerce. The first substantive meeting of the UK-Mexico Business Forum, led by Sandy Flockhart of HSBC, will take place this month in London.
There have been other positive changes too. The UK has now become the number one destination for Chilean government scholars and for Colombian undergraduate students studying overseas.
Looking ahead, I want to see more substance to the UK’s relationship with Latin America, especially in areas where the UK is particularly strong such as science and innovation, education and green growth. As a government I want us to deepen our co-operation and dialogue on our policies in these areas, as well as on the more traditional areas of economic and foreign policy. It can’t just be government though. When choosing their export markets I want businesses to think Latin America. I want our universities and research institutes to have Latin America as a priority for their international outreach. Across government we are developing important partnerships at home and in Latin America to support this ambition.
The visit by Colombia’s President Santos later this month will allow us to broaden our existing excellent bilateral relationship. We want the visit to deliver high-ambition, sustainable results, which will benefit both the UK and Colombia on trade, prosperity, international cooperation, counter-narcotics and human rights.
The dominant focus for all our work in the next year will of course be the Olympic Games, when all eyes will be on London and the UK. This is a fantastic opportunity and we are looking forward to welcoming athletes, Heads of State and other dignitaries from around the world – including, of course, Latin America – to share the occasion with us. The games give us a special bond with Brazil, to whom we will pass the baton in August, and we are already working very closely with them to realise the benefits of that bond, not only for the Olympics community, but also for the British and Brazilian people.
This is an exciting time for Latin America as it continues to become one of the great economic powerhouses of the world. And it is an exciting time for the UK’s bilateral relations with Latin America. The British Government looks forward with pleasure to continued work with Latin American countries to develop deep and enduring partnerships.