Author: Elena Lazarou, Assistant Professor Getulio Vargas Foundation

For the European Union, Brazil’s shift in foreign policy poses a major challenge. Values and principles have been central to the bilateral relationship with the world’s fourth largest democracy. Brazilian foreign policy has traditionally been based on respect for international law, human rights and multilateralism – a factor which enabled the conclusion of a Strategic Partnership in 2007. These shared principles have facilitated cooperation – bilaterally or within international fora – on a range of issues, from the environment to the governance of the internet and cybersecurity, tackling drug trafficking and sustainable development. As the largest economy in the South American trade bloc, Mercosur, Brazil has been a key counterpart in discussions about an EU-Mercosur free trade agreement, most recently re-launched in 2016 with high expectations of being concluded this time around. In spite of disagreements on technical issues that have blocked the conclusion of the agreement several times, its inception was also based on the premise of political cooperation with a group of democratic countries with a similar approach to democratic principles and standards. Mercosur itself has a “democracy clause” which has been triggered to suspend Paraguay and Venezuela in the past.

For a long time Brazil and the EU have recognized the importance of the preservation of multilateralism, but also the need to reform international institutions. This has led to several instances of constructive cooperation within international fora, for instance the joint proposal for a global level-playing field for farmers to the WTO in 2017 and the coalition leading to the Paris climate agreement in 2015. But today President Bolsonaro and his appointed Foreign Minister, Ernesto Araujo, have clearly positioned themselves against globalism. In the “make Brazil great” rhetoric, national interest and international cooperation don’t necessarily go hand in hand.

At the same time, President Bolsonaro has said he will work more with developed countries, namely the US and European states. He also intends to expand foreign trade and reduce trade barriers. At the same time, however, he has repeatedly asserted that he is a bilateralist and that regionalism including Mercosur will not constitute a priority in his foreign policy. The dismissal of regionalism may also mean that Brazil will look at the EU as a loose entity, working à la carte with different member states, possibly prioritizing those with leaders who share President Bolsonaro’s worldviews. On the other hand, and given Brazil’s economic situation, it should be expected that relations with its traditional EU trade and investment partners (like the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Belgium and Portugal) will be maintained and reinforced. In other areas of cooperation with the EU, such as climate and human rights, President Bolsonaro’s rhetoric so far suggests that cooperation is not likely to progress.

Many other aspects of President Bolsonaro’s foreign policy will become clearer in coming months. But as much as the ideological gap between Brasilia and Brussels may widen, it is important to keep in mind that channels for cooperation are not limited to the capital. Issue-specific cooperation with non-state actors, ranging from local authorities to civil society, can be further developed. Brazilian cities are becoming increasingly efficient and powerful in the area of climate diplomacy and trade. New NGOs with an anti-corruption and anti-disinformation agenda carry out some of the most important work to improve the quality of Brazilian democracy and the promotion of democratic participation. In a world where the very nature of global politics is changing, working with these sub-state actors should be one of the foci of a renewed relationship with Brazil.


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