The fourth EU-Latin America Summit started in Vienna on Thursday, aiming to further strengthen strategic relationships, trade partnerships and collaboration in the energy sector.
State and government leaders from the 25 European Union (EU) member states will meet with 33 leaders of Latin America and the Caribbean (ALC), together with leaders from Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey.
Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, and other leaders of international organizations have also been invited to attend the summit.
The event is the biggest that Austria has hosted this decade according to the press service of Austria.
The leaders will gather on Thursday night at a dinner reception, hosted by the Austrian Chancellor and current EU President Wolfgang Schussel.
On Thursday afternoon, foreign ministers from the EU and Latin American countries gathered for a ministerial-level meeting, along with the European Commissioner for external relations, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, and the EU trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson.
Austria's Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik told a pre-summit briefing that during the three-day summit, the leaders would focus on 12 topics, ranging from energy, trade, development, and immigration, to environment.
Plassnik said that the EU and Latin America were both facing "a wide range of challenges" in dealing with bilateral relations.
"We can't get definite answers to these issues (beforehand)," she said before she started to received her colleagues from Latin America.
According to the leader list issued by the meeting organizers, Cuba's leader Fidel Castro will not attend the summit, but both leftist national leaders Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia, who recently announced the nationalization of his country's oil and gas industry, have arrived in Vienna.
The EU is the second-largest trading partner of South America, the Caribbean and Mexico.
Economic and trade links have gradually expanded across the Atlantic, resulting in trade figures that more than doubled between 1990 and 2005.
However, a press release issued on Thursday by the European Commission (EC), the EU executive body, said that between 1999 and 2005, EU25 exports of goods to the 33 Latin American and the Caribbean (ALC) countries grew more slowly than imports.
The exports rose from € 49.2 billion (about US$63 billion) to € 58.2 billion (US$74.5 billion) from 1999 to 2005, while imports increased from € 40.7 billion (US$52.1 billion) to € 67.4 billion (US$86.3 billion).
As a result, the EU 25 balance of trade with the ALC countries turned from an € 8.5 billion (US$10.9 billion) surplus in 1999 to a € 9.1 billion (US$11.6 billion) deficit in 2005.
The ALC countries accounted for around 5.6 percent of the EU25's total external trade in goods in 2005, according to the EC.
Meanwhile, EU investments in the region almost doubled from € 176.5 billion (US$226 billion) in 2000 to € 287 billion (US$367.4 billion) for 2004. The EU is the second leading investor in Latin America, not far off the United States.
The last EU-ALC Summit was held in Guadalajara, Mexico, in May 2004.
(Xinhua News Agency May 12, 2006)