Integration attempts in Latin America have historically been linked to the European experience. Transatlantic influence has gone from policy learning through institutional mimicry to direct funding. Modern Latin American regionalism dates back to 1960, when the Central American Common Market and the Latin American Free Trade Association (LAFTA) were founded. Both associations were a response to the creation of the European Economic Community in 1957 and the fear that “Fortress Europe” would cut extra-regional markets off, so alternatives should be developed. The Latin American blocs aspired to overcome the small size of the national markets by fostering economies of scale. Shortly thereafter, European-born, U.S.-based political scientist Ernst Haas—jointly with Philippe Schmitter—put to the test the neofunctionalist theory he had developed for Europe to analyze Central American integration, correctly diagnosing the latter’s limitations and forecasting its setbacks. LAFTA also faltered and failed and, in 1980, the Latin American Integration Association (ALADI by its Spanish acronym) replaced it. A decade later, ALADI would become MERCOSUR’s umbrella organization.
After the third wave of democratization, which in Latin America started in 1978, new attempts at regional integration took hold, and MERCOSUR was initially considered as the most successful. Successive leaders of the European Union (EU) nurtured big hopes and devoted a great deal of attention to EU–MERCOSUR relations, first assisting with integration technology, material resources, and intellectual guidance and, since 1995, conducting several rounds of negotiations to strike a trade deal. The path that had led to MERCOSUR resembled that of the EU, as it started in 1985 with functional and sectoral integration (wheat and oil prominently, in place of coal and steel) around the Argentina–Brazil axis. A few years later, in 1991, the binational association was opened up to Paraguay and Uruguay and transformed itself into a typical Balassa-like organization, prioritizing broader market integration over focused sectoral integration—just like the Treaty of Rome had done in Europe. Intra-regional trade tripled during the first seven years, but it later stagnated and never bounced back. As a result, the member states decided to up the rhetorical ante and broaden the areas encompassed by the organization rather than fostering economic interdependence or deepening the level of regional authority. An optional tribunal and a powerless parliament were established in 2002 and 2005 respectively. The outcome was grim: more institutions on paper did not enhance performance in practice. Having exhausted the internal agenda, the external agenda remained the only one where positive developments were still expected. In 2019, after twenty years of bumping negotiations, a political agreement on a comprehensive trade deal was reached with the European Union, MERCOSUR’s role model and largest trade partner. If this agreement is signed and ratified, it will become the largest interregional arrangement ever.