European Union leaders will meet Friday and Saturday in Madrid with their counterparts from Latin America and the Caribbean. The meeting comes against a backdrop of resurgent political and economic instability in several Western Hemisphere nations. Spain is calling the summit the biggest gathering of heads of state and government ever held in the European Union.
Forty-eight presidents and prime ministers are expected to attend the summit, the second of its kind since European and Latin American and Caribbean leaders first met in Brazil three years ago.
In the 1990s, Latin America was seen as having a bright and prosperous future, as democracies replaced dictatorships and governments opened up their once protected economies.
But optimism has dimmed in recent months, following the virtual collapse of Argentina's economy, a failed coup in Venezuela, and the breakdown of peace talks in Colombia between the government and communist guerrillas.
Some Western Hemisphere leaders are expected to ask for more aid from the Europeans. Others will plead for the European Union to open up its markets to their exports, especially agricultural goods. But Latin American diplomats and officials at EU headquarters in Brussels acknowledge that they do not expect much more than pledges of more cooperation from the two-day gathering in the Spanish capital.
Despite the downturn in Latin America's fortunes, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, whose country currently holds the rotating EU presidency, is determined to push for closer ties with the region.
He says Spain's political, economic, and cultural links with Latin America compel it to play the leading role in strengthening relations between Europe and the region.
The European Union plans to sign a free trade accord with Chile at the summit, two years after signing a similar agreement with Mexico. EU officials hope to negotiate a trade pact with the Mercosur bloc, comprised of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay, but negotiations are stalled over EU import restrictions on agricultural goods from the area.
The talks will also deal with political issues such as terrorism. Mr. Aznar, whose government arrested two alleged members of the violent Basque separatist group ETA on Tuesday on suspicion that they were planning an attack on the summit, says fighting terrorism is essential to preserve democracy.
He says that, following the September terrorist attacks in the United States, the summit provides a good opportunity to show that democracies are resolved to defend themselves against terrorism.
Colombian President Andres Pastrana has complained that the European Union failed to include Colombia's communist guerrilla group, known as FARC, on its list of terrorist organizations. Some EU governments say doing so would risk any revival of peace talks between the government and the guerrillas. But Mr. Aznar says that omission should be corrected.
He says he is in favor of including FARC on the terrorist list because it is a terrorist group.
Mr. Pastrana and Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo are also expected to ask the Europeans for more aid to fight drug trafficking.