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Uruguay Parliament keen for deeper relations with the UK

The BGIPU hosted a inter-parliamentary visit from the General Assembly of Uruguay from 24-27 March 2014. The delegation was led by Mrs Maria Elena Laurnaga, Chamber of Deputies (Frento Amplio/Broad Front), Senator Francisco Gallinal, Chamber of Senators (Partido Nacional/National Party) and Mr Daniel Bianchi, Chamber of Deputies (Partido Colorado/Colorado Party). The delegation was accompanied by Mr Oscar Piquinela, Secretary General of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) Group of Uruguay and coordinator of the GRULAC geopolitical group of the IPU and Mrs Carina Galvalisi from the Uruguay Group’s Secretariat.

The visit attracted high levels of participation from UK counterparts who highlighted long-standing positive relations between the UK and Uruguay while also noting the UK’s renewed emphasis on advancing relations with Latin America as set out by Foreign Secretary William’s Hague’s Canning House address in November 2010. A number of UK counterparts also recalled the highly successful visit of a delegation from the UK, led by Baroness Hooper, to Montevideo at the same time. For its part, the Uruguay delegation underscored that the Parliament of Uruguay strongly supported efforts to deepen relations with the United Kingdom based on the long-standing and mutually beneficial ties existing between both countries and our shared values and common interests.

Following an introductory briefing from the Clerk of the Overseas Office, Crispin Poyser, the delegation was formally welcomed to the UK parliament by Deputy Speaker Lindsay Hoyle. This was followed by a working lunch chaired by Lord O’Neill of Clackmannan to discuss trade issues, including opportunities to expand bilateral trade, particularly through UK imports of Uruguayan beef, lamb and wine. Recognising that Uruguay will be hosting the next Conference of the Parties (COP12) to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands in 2015, the delegation visited the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) London Wetland Centre to see an example of an ambitious and successful effort to convert open urban space to a wetlands environment as a haven for many species of flora and fauna.

In the evening the delegation attended a welcome reception hosted by the Chair of the BGIPU, Rt Hon Alistair Burt who noted the long history of engagement between both countries. In reply, Ms Laurnaga noted the pivotal role of a former member of the UK House of Commons, Lord John Ponsonby, who was the chief negotiator of the Treaty of Montevideo which created the independent state of Uruguay in 1828. On Wednesday, after attending Prime Minister’s Question Time, it was very fitting that the delegation attended a lunch in the House of Lords Dining Rooms hosted in their honour by his direct descendent and UK Peer, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede.

During a busy programme of calls, the delegation met with Chris Bryant MP to learn more about the history of the Palace of Westminster and Mike Gapes MP to discuss the role of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the UK House of Commons. The delegation met with representatives of Globe International and heard from Lord Prescott, Lord Hunt and Caroline Spelman MP of the important role parliamentarians can play in addressing global climate change issues. A working lunch hosted by Meg Munn MP provided a basis for the delegation to have an in-depth discussion on child welfare, education and the political empowerment of women and they met with the Chairman of the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee, Adrian Bailey MP to discuss his committee’s work. The delegation also meet the APPG for Drug Policy Reform where they outlined in robust terms the political differences which exist in Uruguay over its current policy of marijuana legalisation which is strongly opposed by opposition members on the grounds that such an experiment places at risk vulnerable groups such as the young and poor and does not adequately address the negative health and social impacts of drugs.

Roundtable discussions with BGIPU members chaired by Baroness Hooper on 26 March explored a wide range of economic issues, particularly the importance of a Mercosur/EU trade agreement and the prospects for diversifying the Uruguayan economy. In response to questions from UK counterparts, delegates said Uruguay was committed to Mercosur and welcomed the possibility of a trade agreement between Mercosur and the EU. Nevertheless, Uruguay’s vulnerability to external shocks, particularly as a result of economic issues facing its larger neighbouring economies, such as Argentina and Brazil, remained a concern and some trade issues with Argentina had required arbitration under Mercosur provisions.

While Uruguay was concerned that Mercosur’s strengths not be undermined by negative economic policies undertaken by some of its members, it also needed to be factor in the impacts of other trade developments, including the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the US and EU, moves by other regional trade blocs such as the Pacific Alliance and progress in multilateral trade negotiations through the WTO. A disadvantage of Mercosur was that Uruguay could not pursue alternative trade deals, but it remained committed to Mercosur and hoped to see the group strengthen over time, including through a deal with the EU. Overall, Europe remained an important partner for Uruguay and there were strong cultural and historical links, including through migration, to France, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Switzerland and Uruguay generally shares common values and global interests with European nations.

For the future, Uruguay was keen to develop its agricultural exports and grow small to medium enterprises in software and technology firms. One key advantage was that Uruguay was net energy exporter and exported power from its large hydroelectricity schemes to Argentina. There was also potential for Uruguay to develop its film industry, including through encouraging more foreign productions to film in Uruguay. Across all political parties in Uruguay, education was seen as key to maintaining the country’s competitiveness with strong emphasis placed on empowering children, particularly through the government providing laptops and tablets to all school-age children.

In terms of bilateral trade, there was solid UK engagement in Uruguay’s oil and gas sector and negotiations on a double taxation agreement were progressing which would also encourage trade and investment between both countries. Uruguay also noted that while it was fully supportive of Argentina’s position regarding the Falkland Islands, it was keen to see trade and other links between Uruguay and the Islanders develop strongly and did not agree with any measures seeking to restrict or limit contact between the islanders and the wider region. It was keen to develop transport links and other areas of cooperation with the Falkland Islands which should not be impacted by differences between Argentina and the UK over sovereignty issues.

BGIPU was grateful to all who contributed to the success of this visit, particularly the Uruguayan Ambassador to the UK, HE Julio Moreira-Moran who hosted a reception for the delegation on 25 March and Second Secretary and Consul, Marcelo Baceci, who provided excellent assistance to us throughout the visit. We were grateful to the BGIPU Chair, Rt Hon Alistair Burt MP, for hosting the welcoming event and all other BGIPU members who hosted key events on the programme. We are also grateful to parliamentary staff for briefings provided to the delegation and for facilitating visit arrangements for them.