It has been a mixed summer for relations between Brazil and Europe. In June, the EU and the South American economic bloc Mercosur reached agreement on a free trade deal, but a diplomatic rift has since emerged between Brazil and France over the environment. Miriam Gomes Saraiva writes that implementing the EU-Mercosur agreement now rests on successfully balancing Brazil’s commercial interests against some of the core principles espoused by the country’s president, Jair Bolsonaro.

In June 2019, the formation of an interregional Mercosur-European Union partnership based on free trade was decided on. The framework agreement between the two blocs had been signed in 1995, but in spite of the initial success of the cooperation and political dialogue, negotiations for trade liberalisation only began four years later. For 20 years, negotiations were interrupted and resumed on more than one occasion. They have lasted for four Brazilian presidents’ terms in office and coexisted with diverging positions by the EU and Brazil. While the Common Agricultural Policy had a bearing on the European side, protectionism of certain industry sectors and the area of government bids were the main obstacles posed by Brazil.

In 2007, the strategic EU-Brazil partnership was signed, which deflated the inter-regional EU-Mercosur political dialogue. This partnership paved the way for a deepening of Brazil’s direct relations with the bloc through annual summits, and was supported by several sectorial dialogues and projects financed by European funds. The partnership did not necessarily lead to common positions on global themes, but both parties had in common the fact that they strongly advocated multilateralism in international policy. Negotiations on the EU-Mercosur agreement resumed in 2010.

However, from 2011, as negotiations on the trade agreement slowly progressed, the EU-Brazil partnership gradually lost steam. While the EU faced crisis situations, Brazilian foreign policy lost its activism during the Dilma Rousseff administration and focused on short-term gains. President Rousseff’s impeachment also damaged the partnership. The last summit took place in 2014. It is worth noting that themes such as the environment and human rights held an important place in the range of topics included in the cooperation.

With the rise of President Temer, the partnership became less relevant in Brazilian (and EU) foreign policy but negotiations on the trade liberalisation began to move forward. The rise of Mauricio Macri in Argentina stimulated the advances. On the EU side, France was the country that most hindered the progress due to pressure from its agriculturalists.

Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency has thrown a spanner in the works of the Brazil-EU partnership. During his electoral campaign, he presented himself as an extreme anti-system right-wing candidate. His campaign was based on opposition to the main policies of the previous administrations such as those related to environmental, indigenous and gender issues. He clearly stated that he was against anything “politically correct”. Bolsonaro’s election was a marriage of these ideas with a project of complete liberalisation of the economy. Among the sectors that supported him were the ‘ruralists’, many of them exporters of commodities.

Jair Bolsonaro, Credit: Palácio do Planalto/Alan Santos/PR (CC BY 2.0)

In the field of foreign policy, the president sought to dismantle the specialised and consolidated bureaucracy of the Ministry of External Relations and made a young diplomat with strong ties to his son, Eduardo Bolsonaro, foreign minister. As well as deconstructing the Ministry, the general lines of his foreign policy reveal controversial international preferences strongly underpinned by ideology. He has gone against principles historically espoused by Brazilian diplomacy such as a concern for the environment and a preference for multilateral solutions for global problems. He has removed South America from his list of priorities and sought a strong alliance with the United States (or the Trump administration).

In the environmental field, Bolsonaro’s anti-system perspective has been coupled with an old doctrine of the military dictatorship that viewed the Amazon as an area of national sovereignty forever threatened by the vested interests of foreign powers. He appointed an ally of the ruralists opposed to climate protection as Environment Minister with the aim of deconstructing Brazil’s environmental institutions.

He has taken apart the environmental protection body (ICMBio) and the indigenous protection body (FUNAI), sacking their directors and appointing political figures in their place. He maintains that the Amazon must be developed in order to meet its residents’ needs and that indigenous lands must be used for mining. He has been critical of and cut funding for NGOs that were active in the region. Finally, he dismissed the director of the INPE (body responsible for measuring the region’s deforestation) when alarming data was published.

To him, what matters is not the truthfulness of facts but Brazil’s image. In terms of foreign policy, during the presidential campaign he said that Brazil would leave the Paris Agreement. When he took office, he changed his mind due to the costs involved but withdrew Brazil’s application to host the COP. Regarding bilateral relations, the government’s negative actions concerning the environment and disagreements on how to manage such resources have led both Germany and Norway to cancel financial aid to the region.

However, it was at the beginning of the current administration that the interregional Mercosur-EU partnership was signed. There were many reasons for this on the European side, but on the Brazilian side the project of liberalisation of the economy removed the last obstructions to signing the agreement. Currently, the EU as a whole is one of Brazil’s greatest commercial partners, second only to China. Nevertheless, there are several steps yet to be taken before implementation and the carelessness with the environment and the current diplomatic crisis with France are potential obstacles.

These are obstacles on murky ground. The strategic EU-Brazil partnership is deactivated; the Brazilian government has taken a stance against multilateralism in international policy and assumed positions completely opposed to European ones on issues such as gender and the environment; Germany and Norway’s environmental protection funds have been jettisoned because the interests of “foreign powers” are in opposition to “national sovereignty”; and the issue at the origin of the crisis is very important to the Europeans (and to many Brazilians as well). The fires in forest areas were the element that drew international attention to actions that will be difficult to remedy and that are harmful to the entire planet.

Internally, the president’s support base is divided. Although the idea of sovereignty is pleasing to the military, the ruralist base and the Ministry of Agriculture are concerned about possible sanctions on Brazilian products. The president has come under pressure from the Ministry as well as from parliamentarians to take action to protect the environment and to improve the country’s international image.

Thus, from now on, the stages to implementing the agreement will be mediated by economic and commercial interests in Brazil’s liberalisation, always in contrast with a difficult political interaction and with the importance for the EU of maintaining the values and paradigms consolidated in its foreign policy.

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.

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About the author

Miriam Gomes Saraiva – Rio de Janeiro State University
Miriam Gomes Saraiva is Full Professor in the Graduate Programme in International Relations at the Rio de Janeiro State University and researcher of the CNPq (Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Research).

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