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Lula: The EU's uncomfortable preferred partner

Andreas Noll
June 21, 2023

When Brazil's newly elected president first visited the European Union in April, he steered clear of Paris, Brussels and Berlin. Now, his French counterpart is welcoming him to the Elysee Palace. Is this a new beginning?

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Emmanuel Macron smile and lean in for an embrace
Personal ties between Brazilian President Lula and French President Macron are considered closeImage: Ricardo Stuckert/Instituto Lula

When Brazilian President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva travels to Paris to visit his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, he will be discussing affairs with a neighboring government. Brazil, South America's largest country, shares a border with French Guiana, an overseas department ruled from Paris.

This geographic affiliation and a historical affinity explain why many Brazilians hold Francophile attitudes. In 1825, France was one of the first European nations to recognize the independence of Brazil, and, in the 20th century, Brazil fought alongside France in both world wars. No country in Latin America has such close ties to France as Brazil.

Brazil also relied on France in its recent rise to becoming a dominating regional power in South America. In 2000, France's government bestowed a decommissioned aircraft carrier on Brazil's navy, and, a few years later, agreed to build a new generation of submarines for its longtime ally. The first specimen of the French Scorpene class entered into service for Brazil in the autumn. By the end of the decade, the first nuclear submarine in Brazil is to be built, with France's support.

When the far-right Jair Bolsonaro was Brazil's president from January 1, 2019, through December 31, 2022, the decadeslong alliance between reached a low point. Bolsonaro advocated for slash-and-burn clearance in the Amazon rainforest, which Macron took as an opportunity to block the free trade agreement with the South American bloc Mercosur. Bolsonaro retaliated on Facebook, mocking Macron's wife, Brigitte.

'Diverging geopolitical perspectives'

Lula's two-day visit to France could herald a new beginning. There is no animosity between Macron and Lula. On the contrary: Brazil's president, a former trade unionist, had even publicly advocated for Macron's reelection. Personal relations between the presidents are described as very close.

There are key differences of opinion, however. "People in Europe need to acknowledge that Brazil and the European Union have diverging geopolitical perspectives," said Peter Birle, a researcher with the Ibero-American Institute in Germany. "Ultimately, Europe wants to stabilize the current world order and Brazil wants to change it. Not fundamentally, but still in a way that Brazil has more say. And it is using all means to that end."

Though Brazil condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine at the UN General Assembly, Lula's government will not consider breaking with Moscow or Beijing. In fact, Lula has repeatedly stated that Russia and Ukraine are equally to blame for the war.

Climate protection battle

Lula has rejected the European Union's sanctions on Russia. When German Chancellor Olaf Scholz campaigned in Brazil for the delivery of Brazilian ammunition for German tanks deployed to Ukraine earlier this year, Lula turned him down.

Birle said Brazilians tended to view the war in Ukraine as yet another international conflict rather than an epochal shift. "I see no signs that this attitude will change," he said. He added that Lula appears to want to assume a mediating role between the warring parties, which currently hardly seems realistic.

President Lula stands next to Chancellor Scholz
German Chancellor Scholz visited Lula in Brazil during a charm offensive in Latin America earlier this yearImage: Ueslei Marcelino/REUTERS

But rapprochement between Brazil and France is not only difficult on the subject of Ukraine. The Mercosur agreement that would form the world's largest trade bloc is another contentious topic. The agreement between the EU and several South American countries has been on ice since negotiations ended in 2019. Now that power has transferred from Bolsonaro to Lula, pressure from the EU has been rising to finally make headway in the ongoing renegotiations.

"You brought Brazil back to where it belongs, as a major global player, a leader in the democratic world," European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told Lula during her visit to Latin America in early June. But things get tricky as soon as it gets to the details. The EU's second-largest trade partner has resisted stricter environmental regulations in a supplementary protocol.

Lula prefers presenting superordinate interests to the EU. "The premise that should exist between strategic partners is that of mutual trust," he has said, "and not distrust and sanctions." So far, Lula's concept for protecting the environment and the Amazon rainforest has failed because Bolsonaro supporters continue to dominate Brazil's legislature.

Is the Global South paying for Germany's energy transition?

From the start of his first term as president, in 2003, Lula persistently worked toward positioning Brazil as a global player. Now, he sees the country's hand strengthened by recent global developments. Since Russia is out of the question for supplying Europe with resources and energy, at least for the time being, and the EU wants to become less dependent upon China, the regional power has a key role to play. With about 22 million tons, the country possesses the world's second-largest reserves of rare earth. In addition, it offers ideal geographic and climatic conditions for producing green hydrogen.

Macron under pressure

Brazil is interested in expanding its relations within the European Union. But China, the EU's most important trade partner, offers bilateral agreements with far more lenient terms.

Though Chancellor Scholz supports the European Commission's desire to bring the Mercosur agreement to a quick conclusion, Macron must tread more carefully. In France, resistance to the free trade agreement has gone unbroken for years. Just before Lula's visit, the National Assembly passed a resolution calling upon the government to reject the agreement.

Behind the representatives' criticism of insufficient environmental standards is the concern of French farmers over growing competition from South America. In this case, Macron's wish to not neglect countries from the Global South that are critical of Russia's containment is in conflict with domestic realities. The new beginning between France and Brazil still has much to overcome.

This article was originally written in German.