Regionalism in times of crisis: Lessons from the EU and UNASUR

Regionalism in times of crisis: Lessons from the EU and UNASUR

As conflicts and crises continue to threaten individual States in both South America and Europe, is it time for regional actors to take on a more assertive role? Do the European Union and the Union of South American Nations have the capacity to manage crises threatening the stability of their regions? Both regions are currently facing crises such as the Venezuela crisis and the migration crisis in Europe and this article argues that both can be managed more efficiently with a stronger sense of regionalism. 


Nowadays, Twitter, Facebook, and 24-hour news are constantly informing us of the various catastrophes taking place around the world, often leaving the public in states of panic. This raises the question of whether anyone is doing anything to solve these crises? Is it enough for individual governments alone to take charge? Often, the answer is no. Instead, regional actors and supranational institutions have increasingly played a pivotal role in crisis management. The European Union’s (EU) crisis management system is well established. Yet, how well does it deal with modern-day crises such as the migration crisis that hit the region in the last decade? In South America, regional institutions, such as the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), are less established than the EU. This raises the question of how they manage crises. This article will look at the tools available to the EU and its capacity to manage crises. In a second step, this will be compared with the UNASUR’s tools and handling of the Venezuela crisis. Overall, the main message of this article is that a stronger sense of regionalism facilitates crisis management.

The EU and crisis management

In theory, the EU is extremely well equipped to handle crises both outside and inside its borders. This is largely due to its institutional make-up. The European External Action Service (EEAS) has both a Crisis Response & Operational Coordination Department as well as a Crisis Response System, which range from ‘prevention and preparedness to response and recovery aiming to achieve a comprehensive EU crisis response and management capability’ to providing ‘worldwide monitoring and current situation awareness 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, all year round’.1 The EEAS also engages in mediation as a tool for crisis management. With its EU Special Representatives placed around the world and the region, they are able to engage the concerned parties in dialogue when necessary.2


In terms of internal conflict management measures, the EU’s Internal Security Strategy in Action, adopted in 2010, aims to encourage ‘better EU-level risk assessment and risk management’, which is to play a role in EU policy formulation, development, and implementation.3 Additionally, Article 222 of the Treaty of the Functioning of the EU includes a solidarity clause amongst member states, legally obliging them to assist each other in the case of a terrorist attack or a natural or man-made disaster.4 


Institutionally, the EU is more than adept to manage crises. In 2004, member states provided 5,761 police officers, 631 State of Law specialists, 562 civil administrators, and 4,988 civil protection staff.5 This demonstrates that in successful cases of regionalism, resources can be pooled for crisis management. Moreover, between 2003 and 2009 the EU carried out 23 crisis management missions and operations, six of which were of military nature, 17 were civil, seven police, three rule of law, two monitoring, two in the security sector, two were border assistance and one was a joint civilian-military mission.6 As of 2016, these missions increased to 35 operations having been launched by the EU.7 Therefore, not only does the EU theoretically have the institutional capacity to engage in crisis management, but it actually does so.


Yet, in practice, the EU’s crisis management strategies have produced mixed results. For instance, its handling of the 2007/2008 financial crisis was considered so disastrous it brought into question the Union itself. Similarly, the EU has faced much criticism regarding the way it has handled the migration crisis that started in 2015. Many countries, namely the southern European States, feel abandoned by the principle of solidarity, whilst others refuse to cooperate in their share of the crisis management. 


Yet, this does not mean that the EU does not have the capacity to deal with the migration crisis. Institutionally it has taken many measures to tackle the migration crisis. These include; providing additional funding to Frontex joint search and rescue operations; funding for the legal resettlement of migrants in Europe; funding to the most affected Member States; strengthening the role of Europol; launching a Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) mission in the Mediterranean to capture and dismantle people-smuggling boats; and to work with the International Organization for Migration and the UN Refugee Agency.8 The EU has also worked with non-EU countries such as Turkey, leading to irregular arrivals having fallen by 97 percent.9 In October 2015, daily crossings across the Aegean between Turkey and the EU were 10,000 a day. By 2018, these have gone down to 80 a day and deaths from the crossings have also decreased.10 Moreover, over 12,000 Syrian refugees have been resettled in the EU Member States so far, since crossing through Turkey.11 


Therefore, whilst its response to many crises has been far from perfect, it is undeniable that the EU as a supranational regional institution is able to pool resources which allows it to manage crises more effectively and efficiently than if States were to act alone. 

UNASUR and Venezuela 

 Since its creation in 2008, The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) has stood out as an effective player in the resolution of political crises. Throughout the past ten years, the union has helped mediate conflicts between member states, aided in disaster response, and fostered collaboration on defense and development projects. However, its inability to deal with Venezuela, the worst political and social crisis in a generation, has rather weakened UNASUR’s already unstable institutionality.12 


With regional integration at the top of its goals, UNASUR exercises its role mostly through Presidential summits. Almost immediately after being established, the political utility of UNASUR was put to test by the Andean border crisis, a tense diplomatic dispute between Colombia and its neighbors Ecuador and Venezuela that came after Colombian forces launched an attack on a camp of the FARC guerrilla in Ecuadorian territory. Two aspects must be highlighted. First, the UNASUR provided for the first time an alternative regional political forum to the Organisation of American States (OAS), thus excluding the US from playing a central role in the crisis management. Second, leaders from different political backgrounds came together to show that the region would prioritise constitutional democracy over political ideologies. These messages were vigorously reinforced by UNASUR in its response to the coup attempt in Ecuador in 2010.13 Not only did the UNASUR succeed in reacting timely and firmly against the crisis, but it also managed to put forward the Democratic Protocol: an agreement signed by UNASUR’s members in 2010 to impose diplomatic, political and economic sanctions to any country that might undermine the democratic order.


Despite these early accomplishments, the UNASUR has failed to produce an adequate normative basis to operate. This is evidenced by the fact that all decisions are mostly taken at summits which lack formal monitoring mechanisms, in addition to the lack of resources to implement these agreements. UNASUR has thus been in decline since former Colombian president, Ernesto Samper, left the post in January 2017. In this context, the crisis in Venezuela has both exacerbated internal problems among members and has highlighted the structural deficiencies of UNASUR. In 2016 Samper promoted a mediation mission led by former presidents José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (Spain), Martín Torrijos (Panama) and Leonel Fernández (Dominican Republic). This initiative ended up failing in December after the opposition body Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD) abandoned the scope of negotiations, arguing that the government had breached the agreement. 


Furthermore, six member states (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Peru, and Paraguay) have recently rejected the diplomatic mechanisms of the union by withdrawing from the group in April 2018. The split was triggered by a failure to agree on a Secretary General after almost a year and a half vacancy, with proposed candidate José Octavio Bordón of Argentina opposed by Venezuela and Bolivia. This has in turn resulted in total inaction concerning the Venezuelan crisis.



UNASUR has long been a victim of a lack of real demand for integration among member states, diplomatic deadlock, the re-assertion of the prerogative of national sovereignty, and lack of financial resources. In terms of crisis management, the ongoing fractioning of South American cooperation means fewer multilateral accountability mechanisms on democracy, human rights, anti-corruption measures, and economic openness. The example of the EU evidences that a normative, diplomatic and institutional framework is essential to achieve regional integration. Meanwhile, unlike UNASUR, the EU operates upon world-renowned monitoring and enforcement mechanisms to manage regional political crises efficiently. The fall of UNASUR should be a lesson for future attempts to integrate Latin American countries. Member states need a clear, concise agenda with relevant functions incorporated over time and a strong institutional structure that allows for the regional goals to be accomplished, including dealing efficiently with challenges such as the crisis in Venezuela.




1. European External Action Service. (2016). Crisis Management and Response. Retrieved from: (Accessed on: 20th April, 2018).

2. European External Action Service. (2017). Conflict Prevention, Peacebuilding and Mediation. Retrieved from: (accessed on: 20th April, 2018). 

3. European Commission Migration and Home Affairs. (2018). Crisis Management. Retrieved from: (accessed on: 20th April, 2018). 

4. Ibid.

5. Foundation Robert Schuman (2006). The European Union and Crisis Management. Retrieved from: (accessed on: 20th April, 2018).

6. Kuhn, Maike. (2009). The System of EU Crisis Management–From Bringing Peace to Establishing Democracy?. Max Planck Yearbook of United Nations Law Online, 13.1: p.249.

7. Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. Understanding the EU’s crisis response toolbox and decision-making process. Retrieved from:, p. 3 (accessed on: 20th April, 2018).

8. European Commission Migration and Home Affairs (2018). European Agenda on Migration. Retrieved from: (accessed on: 20th April, 2018).

9. European Commission. (2018). “EU-Turkey Statement, two years on. Retrieved from: (accessed on: 20th April, 2018). 

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. Centre for Economic and Policy Research (2015). The Role of the OAS and UNASUR in Mediating Inter-Regional Conflicts. Retrieved from: (accessed on: 28th April, 2018).

13. The European Union Centre of the University of Miami (2010). Una region en construccion: Unasur y la integracion en America del Sur. Retrieved from: (accessed on: 29th April, 2018).


Nicole (right) holds a Master’s degree in International Security at Sciences Po Paris, where she specialised in Latin America. Prior to this, Nicole obtained her Bachelor's degree in History from University College London. Amongst other work experiences, Nicole has interned at the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development and is currently working in EU public affairs in Brussels. Nicole’s areas of interest include European and British politics, as well as conflict resolution and geopolitical security issues. Grace (left) holds a MSc in Emerging Economies and International Development from King's College London and a first-class degree in Politics and International Relation. She has interned for Unicef UK, the London International Development Centre and Oxfam GB. Her work focuses on the development of youth-driven social impact projects in organisations such as Project Access and previously, Student Hubs UK. Additionally she is the founder of a social enterprise that aims to tackle unemployment and underemployment amongst young people in Latin America by providing micro-consultancy and networking opportunities to talented students from disadvantaged backgrounds.