international analysis and commentary

The EU on the eve of the vote in Brazilian eyes


What will the European Parliament look like after the upcoming elections? If opinion polling is any indication, the latest crisis has strengthened populist and anti-EU parties. Though the eurozone did not fall apart in November 2011 (the worst moment for Europe’s single currency), the combination of spending cuts, high unemployment and bank bailouts used to save the euro produced widespread popular hostility – which is still present today. A recent pan-European Ipsos poll shows that less than 40% of the 400 million eligible voters are likely to cast their ballots. Popular disaffection for the European Parliament has never been so strong.

How does Brazil see Europe in this difficult period? The first point to consider is that most Brazilians have some European ancestry. That includes the current President Dilma Rousseff, whose father was born in Bulgaria. Census statistics indicate that in the so-called “Grande Sao Paulo” – the city plus its suburbs – almost half of the population of 20 million has some EU roots. Whether for this reason or because Brazil shares many of Europe’s basic values, Brazilians generally look at Brussels in a positive way. In general, the wealthier class sees Europe not just as a good place to go on holiday but as the nearest thing there is to an ideal place to live. They love French wine, skiing in St. Moritz and fantasize about a home in Paris or London. They know Europe is going through an economic crisis, but even if Brazil is one of the emerging economies credited with unprecedented reductions of poverty and unemployment, many are still more confident about Brussels’ future than Brasilia’s.

The so-called “new middle class”, together with the 40 million Brazilians who rose out of poverty in the last decade (defined as having a salary higher than 321 reals or 110 euros per month), also has a friendly take on Europe but for different reasons. Free public schooling of decent quality and the health and transportation services available to all EU citizens – in a nutshell the European welfare state model – is what this part of Brazilian society admires the most and would like to see implemented in Brazil. Given this, it was no surprise that last year’s protests began after a seven-cent increase in transport fares in Sao Paolo, nor that protestors then took to the streets across the country asking for more schools and hospitals at “FIFA standards”.  

But what do Brazilians really know about the EU? Most of them are unaware that Europeans will soon vote to renew their parliament. In fact few even know of the parliament’s existence. Local media rarely talk about the EU, and stories on TV and in the mainstream press tend to focus more on individual countries than the European Union as a whole. So it is much easier for a Brazilian to know what a former Italian prime minister said last week or the way Greece and Portugal are dealing with their crises than about the EU’s collective challenges, internal and external.

Brazil has four important weekly magazines: VejaÉpocaIstoĂ© and CartaCapital. Until now only the last has published anything on the upcoming European elections. CartaCapital’s two articles focused mainly on the likelihood of widespread non-voting and the expectation that 30% of Europeans will vote for populists and euroskeptics. Brazilian television seems to care even less about Brussels. As of early May neither Globo nor Record, the two main local TV conglomerates, had broadcast a single report on the imminent EU vote. This may appear strange but is hardly a surprise to observers of Brazil.  

The situation changes, but not by much, if we look at the politicians. 2014 is a very important year for Brazil’s political class for two reasons: this summer Brazil will host the World Cup and have attention of international media, and in October more than 100 million Brazilian voters will choose the country’s president for the next four years. Three candidates have a chance. Dilma Rousseff, the incumbent, leads in all the polls. She has the backing of the ruling Workers’ Party (PT) and visited Brussels in February on the occasion of the 7th EU-Brazil Summit. The others who have a chance of winning are Aecio Neves, the former Governor of the Minas Gerais state and candidate of the Social Democratic Party (PSDB), and Eduardo Campos, leader of the Socialist Party (PSB) and until last year one of the strongest PT allies.

Only the PT has a clear position towards the EU. Neither Neves nor Campos has made any detailed statement on the subject. The PT’s position is defined by its past actions. In 2003, at the beginning of Lula’s eight-year presidency, Brazilian foreign policy made a U-turn when Foreign Minister Celso Amorim launched what came to be called “South-South diplomacy”. Since then PT governments have continued to strengthen economic and political relations with China, Africa and South American neighbors, while ties with both the US and the EU have been loosened. Antonio Patriota and Luiz Alberto Figueredo – the Foreign Ministers who succeeded Amorim – made no changes, and in the event of a Rousseff victory things will remain the same.

The position of the PT and its allies is understandable because Brazil is a recognized emerging power and its engagement with other informal groupings such as the BRICS and the IBSA, or with more formal ones like UNASUR and the G20, can be considered natural. Last February Dilma committed Brazil to signing the EU-Mercosur agreement, a never-ending story that started in 1999 and got stuck in 2004 after the failure of the Doha Development Round, then restarted in 2010. Venezuela’s joining of the group and a protectionist turn of policy by Argentina have made it difficult to foresee any agreement taking place in the near future. A possible way forward is the initial signing of an EU-Brazil bilateral agreement, which could tackle exclusively non-tariff barriers to trade as tariff-related issues might be controversial for the Mercosur trade bloc. This EU-Brazil bilateral agreement could solve a 15-year impasse and later the negotiations could be carried out bilaterally with individual Mercosur member countries deciding their trade liberalization commitments, along the lines of the agreement already enacted by Brussels with the Andean Community. Yet while the economic importance of the EU as a trading partner has remained intact throughout the last decade, it is clear that the EU’s standing in Brazil’s new foreign policy has declined over this period.

Apart from bilateral trade – in 2012 Brussels was the number one trading partner of Brasilia – there are some fields where EU-Brazil cooperation is likely to increase in the coming years. First is in bio-fuels production and technology – two areas where Brussels and Brasilia are natural partners. In 2005, a Scientific and Technological Agreement was signed and Brazil is now cooperating actively with the European Atom Energy Community. The bedrock for a deeper relationship on the basis of equal status is also due to the common values shared by both the European Union and Brazil (democracy and the rule of law, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms). The EU’s slow recovery from the crisis and Brazil’s economic slowdown could be another motivation to forge closer relations between these large economic actors on the two sides of the Atlantic.