Europe is the top direct investor in Latin America and the Caribbean. But the flow of money across the Atlantic has slowed because of a European recession marked by record unemployment, austerity measures and mounting debts.
Adding to Europe's woes, companies from Spain, France and other once-dominant economies have been seized in recent years as Argentina, Bolivia and Venezuela seek to regain control over their resources.
The Europeans' frustration was evident at the CELAC-EU summit.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said sustainable development in the two continents, which collectively represent a third of the world's nations and a fourth of the world's gross domestic product, cannot occur if shifting regulations make long-term investments too risky.
"It's true that Europe is the largest trading partner for Latin America. But it's also true that we're seeing an increase in Latin American investment in Europe, where they are most welcome," Barroso said. "Both sides need to provide legal certainty to companies investing in our economies."
Chilean President Sebastian Pinera took a more optimistic tone, saying he feels his fellow leaders have strengthened a strategic alliance and that a slowdown in Europe has been offset by trade flowing from a booming Latin America.
"I'm fully convinced that we've taken a huge step forward," Pinera said. "But it's not enough. Now it's time to act, to translate good intentions and agreements into results."
European Council President Herman Van Rompuy promised that the benefits of the EU's free-trade deals with Colombia, Peru and Central America will become evident this year.
He also expressed optimism about progress toward a long-delayed treaty dropping trade barriers with South America's Mercosur trade bloc, after securing promises from Brazil and Argentina to submit new proposals this year
But President Cristina Fernandez tweeted that she won't agree to deal that exposes Argentine companies to unfair competition from more powerful European interests. "We have to prevent and consider these asymmetries, to avoid hurting our industries and, above all, our people."
Europe has been desperately seeking new profits in a region it colonized with gunpowder and horses 500 years ago. It gained new dominion in the 1990s as dictatorships gave way to weakened democracies. But the latest data show how much times have changed.
While Latin America's commodity-rich economies have weathered the global crisis, growing by 3.1 percent last year, Europe contracted by 0.5 percent. This year's growth forecasts suggest little immediate relief for an Old World stuck in recession.
Bolivian President Evo Morales rejected the Europeans' calls for profit-guarantees for their companies, saying Europe plundered Latin America for way too long to make such demands now.
Access to water, electricity and other basic services are rights of the people, not corporations, he said. The first indigenous president of the poor-landlocked country nationalized several Spanish electricity distribution companies last year.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has nationalized a long list of foreign companies, sometimes triggering compensation disputes. Argentina has refused to pay Grupo Repsol $10.5 billion for expropriating the Spanish company's stake in the YPF oil company
Europe came to the summit hoping to get the Latin leaders' signatures on a declaration promising to stop these takeovers and other protectionist measures that have scared investors away, from currency controls and new taxes to constantly changing import and export rules.
But Venezuela refused to sign, prompting the Europeans to drop a phrase committing the leaders to ensure their regulations adhere to "international commitments and obligations."
Van Rompuy, a former prime minister of Belgium, said the summit provided much reason for optimism. But he insisted that "a stable, transparent and predictable legal framework" is essential.
"We need more trade, more free trade," he said. "We have to avoid protectionism."
Associated Press writers Federico Quilodran, Eva Vergara and Michael Warren in Santiago, Chile contributed to this report.—
Luis Andres Henao is on Twitter: https://twitter.com/LuisAndresHenao