From Bolivar’s dream to establish a “Nation of Republics” in the 19th century to the latest processes, in South America integration produces great expectations but also great frustrations. MERCOSUR seems to have been unable to avoid the latter but it has made some real progress. In order to comprehend the coordination of social policies within the framework of MERCOSUR, we will propose a two-phase analysis. Firstly, we will present the dynamics of “social” in the integration system as a historic process, influenced by international and domestic variables that condition it. Then we will illustrate the institutional building of MERCOSUR throughout the 2000s and its chief limitations.
We must keep in mind that, within the scope of regional integration, “social” may take on rather different meanings. An approximation may be the “social dimension of integration”, whose aim would be the social impact of an economic integration process . Another may be the development of a social institutionality and of regional public policies concerning social issues, and a third one may be social participation, as the legitimizing factor of the process. MERCOSUR has progressed in all these dimensions, nonetheless this article will be especially focussed on the first two.
From its foundation in 1991 to its institutional reform in 1994, MERCOSUR rather ignored the social component, thus reflecting the neoliberal paradigm then widespread throughout the region. The main objective of MERCOSUR was economic and commercial. As a safeguard for the interests of labourers, the Southern Cone Coordination of Union Federations (CCSCS) was involved in integration processes since the late 1980s. The presence of trade unions since the inception of MERCOSUR revealed itself through the creation of the “Labour Affairs” Sub-Working Group of the Common Market Group. The pressure exerted by the unions, worried for the possible consequences of the liberalization of exchange, resulted in the creation of the Economic and Social Consultative Forum provided for in the Treaty of Ouro Preto, signed in 1994.
During the new “consolidation” phase of MERCOSUR (1994-1999) appeared the earliest analyses conducted by the academic community and by CEPAL concerning the social dimension of integration in MERCOSUR. Both this new literature and the recommendations of social actors (through FCES or the Sub-Working Group) seem rather distant from the preoccupations of political leaders. Nevertheless, they do illustrate the evolution of ideas at the international level, especially as concerns the social effects of globalization. In the 1990s, integration systems following the logic of an open regionalism are an additional component of structural reforms favouring the integration of Latin American countries in international economy, and as a second-best option as compared with multilateral liberalization. The main advance of MERCOSUR in social matters during that phase was the signing (in 1997) of the Social Security Multilateral Agreement of MERCOSUR. To achieve this agreement MERCOSUR could rely on the support of the Iberian American Social Security Organization, with the objective to converge the legislations of State Parties, so that migrant workers could benefit from their social rights in the other South American countries.
Throughout the 1990s, the issue of the fight against poverty acquired a greater importance in the international agenda, as evidenced by the World Summit for Social Development organized by the United Nations in Copenhagen in March, 1995. The serious deterioration of the economic and social situation during the last years of the decade in the countries of the Southern Cone triggered a change in MERCOSUR’s paradigm as concerns the social aspect. The issue of the fight against poverty became a staple of South American rhetoric. In December, 2000, the 4 State Parties plus Chile and Bolivia decided to inaugurate the Meeting of Ministers and Heads of Agencies Responsible for Social Development of the (RMADS) in order to fight together against extreme poverty and eradicate child labour. Since 2001 RMADS also pursues the objective to develop a Statistical System of Social Indicators (SEIS), so as to harmonize the statistics concerning social matters and consequently direct the public policies of State parties. Ambitions are great but resources are scarce.
The coming to power of progressive leaders in the region (as for instance the election of Lula da Silva in Brazil in 2002 and of Nestor Kirschner in Argentina in 2003) has started a new phase of enthusiasm for “MERCOSUR Social”. In spite of the lack of resources, institutionalization begins with the creation of working committees within the framework of the RMADS (in 2004) and with the approval (in 2005) of a two-year plan. In the same year a Permanent Secretariat was instated in Paraguay to improve the monitoring of activities between meetings. Following the coming to power of Tabaré Vázquez in Uruguay (March 2005) a Ministry of Social Development (MIDES) was created and, in July of the same year, a Social Cabinet was established to coordinate the actions of the different ministries. These two institutional creations (MIDES and Social Cabinet) reflect a regional trend (similar ministries were created in Argentina in 1999 and in Brazil in 2004.) Such a “mercosurian” institutional emulation was confirmed by the decree that installed a Social Cabinet in Uruguay : “the Ministries and Authorities of Social Development of MERCOSUR and its associated States, (…) on June 1st, 2005, declared that, in order to make the social element the axis of the integration process in the region it will be necessary to boost social policy as the axis of public policy within each government” (Decree No. 236/005, 2005). The Social Cabinet is composed of a National Council for the Coordination of Social Policies, made up of representatives of the ministries concerned and presided over by the Director of Social Policies of MIDES.
This phase of institutional consolidation for MERCOSUR Social continued in 2005 with the creation of the Structural Convergence Fund of MERCOSUR, which included a Social Cohesion Programme. In 2007 the MERCOSUR Social Institute was founded, with headquarters in Asunción followed, in 2008, by a Committee for the Coordination of Ministries of Social Affairs of MERCOSUR (CCMASM). CCMASM pursues two main objectives: the former is general, aiming at “favouring cooperation in the formulation of MERCOSUR’s social policies (…) so as to generate a comprehensive approach both in the design and in the implementation of the aforementioned policies”, whereas the latter, more specific, is aimed at the definition and monitoring of a Strategic Plan for Social Action of MERCOSUR.
Such new institutional and financial tools undoubtedly represented a considerable advance in the strengthening of the social component of MERCOSUR. Howsoever, the common political will that resulted in the decisions of the Common Market Council needed to be translated into realities. The actualization of good intentions proved to be arduous. The Social Institute was never able to function properly, first because Brazil did not pay its contribution, later because of the paralysis of the whole region in 2012 (following the suspension of Paraguay from MERCOSUR, ISM Headquarters being in Asunción) and as a result of the bad functioning of ISM and the resignation of many of its officials. The first Multi-State Social Economy Project, resolutely endorsed by Argentina, would have been the first real regional project financed by FOCEM, but it was not approved by the Presidency of Uruguay following several years of joint formulation. Other projects formulated by ISM or CCMASM were not able to get sufficient political support to ensure funding (from FOCEM or CAF.)
These difficulties may be interpreted in different ways. We may consider that the advances described above are nothing more than the results of the rhetoric of governments trying to diversify integration issues in a spill around strategy to counteract the lack of progress as concerns the economic aspect of integration. Notwithstanding this, if the political will to extend the issues to be tackled was actually there, the analysis of the process reveals that the difficulties came mainly from the path dependence of MERCOSUR, which has been merely intergovernmental and hyper-presidentialistic since its inception and whose chanceries sometimes present deficiencies in their operation. The purely commercial features of MERCOSUR until the middle 2000s may also explain why FOCEM still demands indicators of profitability in the projects proposed to it, which are hardly applicable to social projects.
However, notwithstanding such difficulties and to conclude this short presentation, we wish to underline some positive aspects. Firstly, the institutionalization process of MERCOSUR Social is relatively recent, especially if compared with the European integration process. It has nonetheless allowed for a consolidation of social development institutions which were very young in each country, by favouring mutual learning thanks to the frequency of meetings imposed by the common agenda. Nevertheless, even if no ambitious project at the regional level have emerged yet, many bilateral technical cooperation ventures were and still are developed among the members of MERCOSUR. Institution-building in itself does not ensure the outcome of policies, but it strengthens the integration process in difficult circumstances, given the high cost to be paid to dismantle an institution. Therefore, and despite all its difficulties, the ISM still functions, expecting better times. CCMASM is in the same condition. At the theoretical-conceptual level, if in the early 2000s MERCOSUR did not seem to have an identity of its own as concerns social matters and reflected the language of international institutions (for instance, by adopting concepts such as Social Risk Management,) it slowly managed to build a common discourse through a rights-based approach, presented within the scope of the “Conceptual Framework of the Social Dimension of MERCOSUR”, a volume published by ISM. Left-wing leaders in power have not been able to implement the change of paradigm they wish for as concerns regionalism (Dabène 2012, p. 398.) Although the ideological affinities of the leaders facilitate the integration process, greater leadership and compromise in Brazil seem to be essential.

Bertrand Le Fur is PhD Candidate at the Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris 3 University and former Coordinator of the Polo Mercosur (Institute of the Americas, France)