Table of Contents


In August 2019, relations between Brazil and the European Union (EU) entered their worst crisis since the country established diplomatic relations with the bloc in 1960. In response to several European governments’ criticism of Brazil’s environmental policies in the Amazon rain forest, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro taunted his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, and former German chancellor Angela Merkel, saying that fires in the Amazon and the deforestation of parts of Brazil’s rain forest were an “internal issue” and that “the Amazon belongs to Brazil.”1 To the far-right president and his followers, European criticism of Brazil’s environmental policies represented undue interference and smacked of neocolonialism.2 Earlier in 2019, after the Bolsonaro government had proposed excluding civil society from the management of the Amazon Fund, a multimillion-dollar conservation scheme financed by the German and Norwegian governments, Berlin and Oslo suspended the payments.

Now, over three years into his turbulent presidency, Bolsonaro is shunned by leaders across Europe—with the exception of right-wing leaders such as Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán—and it seems unlikely that this scenario will change significantly as long as he is president.

At no other stage since democratization has a Brazilian leader been on such bad terms with their European counterparts. A strategic partnership between Berlin and Brasília, which traditionally involved yearly joint cabinet meetings, has been halted. With the exception of a brief visit to Budapest in February 2022, Bolsonaro is the first Brazilian president in the past three decades not to have undertaken a single bilateral visit to Europe, a continent where he is largely seen as a persona non grata.

Yet, at the same time, the Brazilian government’s neoliberal faction insists that the president’s rhetoric should not derail an ambitious agenda of deepening ties between Mercosur and the EU. In the same way, many Brazilian foreign policy makers and economic elites are eager to accelerate Brazil’s accession to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The elites see OECD membership as a seal of approval to attract international investors in a moment of economic crisis and a step that would strengthen the country’s ties to both Europe and the United States.3

To members of the neoliberal faction, then, Bolsonaro’s attacks on Europe should be understood as a domestic tactic to mobilize his most loyal followers and should not imperil a trade relationship of great importance to Brazil’s development. To this group, the EU is, above all, a crucial buyer of Brazilian products as well as a partner in the project of modernizing Brazil.

To explore Brazilian perceptions of the EU, this chapter draws on research into how the government’s internal factions view Europe as well as semistructured interviews with advisers to government and opposition parliamentarians, representatives of state and municipal governments, members of the military, business leaders, civil society representatives, journalists, and academics.

Current Perceptions of the EU

Brazilian perceptions of the EU are characterized by frequent misunderstandings about how the EU works and conducts its foreign policy, especially compared with the international strategies of EU member countries. The widespread uncertainty about the EU’s workings emerged in Brazil’s public debate about the EU-Mercosur trade deal, which was concluded in principle in 2019. While Brazilians perceived Germany as strongly in favor of ratifying the agreement, they saw Macron, who frequently voiced his opposition to it, as far more reluctant.

When asked about how they believed decisions were made in the EU, several interlocutors said Germany and France held a veto power on strategic decisions. But there was also a recognition that, particularly when it came to Latin American affairs, Spain and Portugal punched above their weight in Brussels. Interestingly, interviewees saw this largely as a positive dynamic, describing Lisbon, especially, as more sympathetic to Brazil’s interests and thus as indirectly standing up for Brazil in intra-EU debates.

Oliver Stuenkel
Oliver Stuenkel is an associate professor at the School of International Relations at Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV) in São Paulo, Brazil. He is also a nonresident scholar affiliated with the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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There was no consensus among interlocutors about what the EU actually is or who can speak on its behalf. In general, nonspecialist interviewees did not fully appreciate the number of policy areas on which Brussels decides. With a few exceptions, only career diplomats could name EU officials such as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, or European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde. Meanwhile, many other policymakers spoke about European countries, national governments, and EU institutions interchangeably, even speaking about the United Kingdom, despite the country’s 2020 departure from the EU.

To a country like Brazil, which, despite some progress on regional cooperation in the 1990s and 2000s, remains fiercely protective of its national sovereignty, the EU is an experiment that interlocutors regard as admirable, risky, outlandish, doomed, or simply incomprehensible.

The EU as a Global Actor

Among Brazil’s policymakers and armed forces, perceptions of the EU are framed by the 2019 falling-out between the Bolsonaro government and the EU, which symbolizes, above all, that Brazil and Europe are now diverging fundamentally on four key issues of international affairs. In addition to climate change, which Bolsonaro has described as a communist hoax, his policies differ radically from those of the EU on human rights, migration, and multilateralism.4 Not only has Bolsonaro called for “human rights for the right humans,” repeatedly mocking the term;5 he also abandoned the Global Compact for Migration and chose as his first foreign minister Ernesto Araújo, an obscure mid-level diplomat who embraced former U.S. president Donald Trump’s antiglobalist rhetoric and sought closer ties with the far-right leaders of Hungary and Poland.

Within the Brazilian government, there are three discernible factions, which have distinct perceptions of the EU. For the antiglobalist faction, which includes the president, the EU’s defense of environmental norms and criticism of Brazil’s human rights record and anti-multilateral stance turned the union into one of the country’s most formidable foreign policy challenges. The EU, led by faceless bureaucrats, Araújo charged, had “pasteurized Europe’s past.”6 When Germany’s foreign minister Heiko Maas invited all of his Latin American counterparts to Berlin in May 2019, Araújo was one of the few not to attend. The decision produced a sense of relief among numerous other participants, given Araújo’s habit of peddling conspiracy theories.7

Neither Bolsonaro nor his foreign minister has described the EU as a strategic partner, a term used by previous Brazilian governments. Yet, while the crisis in the EU-Brazil relationship is real and may worsen given the growing importance of climate change in global affairs, virtually no Brazilian interlocutor echoed Araújo’s negative views of the EU.

Some members of the second, neoliberal or self-styled technocratic faction questioned the EU’s commitment to free trade and accused the union of applying double standards on climate change, while others described Europe as a continent in decline; but the vast majority portrayed the Bolsonaro government’s foreign policy as excessively confrontational. Even serving diplomats said they believed Bolsonaro was the main culprit behind the deterioration in Brazil-EU ties and observed that the relationship had less to do with the EU and more to do with Bolsonaro’s antiglobalist stance, which led to similar tensions with many other countries.

The government’s third faction, made up of generals, articulated a more nuanced view of the EU. While Macron’s 2019 comments about the Amazon raised concerns, military men are aware that strong ties with Europe will be important in a world increasingly shaped by great-power tensions between Beijing and Washington. The generals thus see Bolsonaro’s anti-EU stance as largely counterproductive.8 When it looked increasingly likely that Joe Biden would win the 2020 U.S. presidential election, several Brazilian military men worried that Biden’s election could lead to the emergence of a transatlantic “environmental alliance” against Brazil.9 This view was also dominant among most Brazilian diplomats interviewed.

Yet, possibly in a sign of the limits of Europe’s geopolitical influence, even diplomatic pressure and the growing risk of consumer boycotts failed to moderate Brazil’s stance on any of the issues above. Most notably, the president refused for more than two years to replace his controversial environment minister, Ricardo Salles, whom EU diplomats increasingly saw as a toxic symbol of Bolsonaro’s inaction in the face of environmental destruction.10

The EU’s more limited engagement in Brazil actually predates Bolsonaro’s election and is in part due to the permanent political crisis that began to engulf the country during former president Dilma Rousseff’s second term. The optimism that characterized most publications about EU-Brazil relations before 2014 has ended. In January 2013, the Sixth Brazil-EU Summit in Brasília was billed under the heading “An Ever-Closer Relationship,” and around thirty sectoral policy groups debated ways to deepen ties. Yet, no Brazil-EU summit has taken place since 2014, and there is no sign that the bilateral partnership will be revived anytime soon, given the profound differences between the two sides on issues such as human rights and the environment.11

Although Brazil-EU ties have undoubtedly worsened significantly since Bolsonaro came to power in January 2019, it is important to assess this development in the context of the overall transformation of Brazil’s relations with the world. Indeed, Brazil’s president has used the country’s foreign policy to energize his most radical base. Particularly since Bolsonaro chose to abandon some of his signature domestic policies, such as the fight against corruption and the promise not to negotiate with the country’s traditional political elite, radicalism on the foreign policy front has been useful to burnish his antiestablishment credentials among his most loyal followers.

Since Bolsonaro came to office, attacking traditional partners such as Argentina, China, or European countries—a move that predictably causes outrage and condemnation among Brazil’s political and intellectual elites—has been a reliable way to divert public attention when necessary.12 The overarching theme of Bolsonaro’s attacks has always been to project himself as a defender against outside threats. In the cases of Argentina, China, and Venezuela, Bolsonaro often speaks about the threat of left-wing ideology. In the case of Europe, the perceived threat is mostly in the shape of globalism—a vague, nonscientific, and pejorative term that describes everything from multilateralism to environmentalism to progressivism. In short: a defensive response by a far-right populist nationalist to the EU’s role as a normative power.

Yet, while it is easy to be absorbed by the frequent mutual criticism shared on social media between heads of state and government, a far more nuanced picture emerged in interviews with bureaucrats, parliamentarians, and opposition figures. The ideas that Brazilian decisionmakers shared about the EU’s reputation were, above all, a product of the bloc’s policies on the economy, trade, norms, climate change, diplomacy, technology, and international cooperation—topics that are often so intertwined that interlocutors did not make a conscious distinction between them. For example, debates about the future of the trade relationship almost always involved comments about climate change and global norms as well.

While policymakers and private-sector representatives tend to have positive views of the EU, this tendency is more pronounced among academics and representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), many of whom could be characterized as Europhiles. Several expressed dismay at the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU and drew parallels between the populist wave in Europe and that in Brazil, which elected Bolsonaro in 2018. The reasons for these perceptions and these interviewees’ greater understanding of the EU are manifold but may include previous participation in conferences at European universities, time spent in Europe as visiting scholars or students, and financial support obtained from European funding sources for projects or study in Europe.

In particular, environmental NGOs expressed a firmly pro-EU view and stressed that EU pressure on the Bolsonaro government would be crucial to contain the president’s worst impulses in this area. Most agreed that the EU’s influence in Latin America did not currently match that of the United States or China.

Among the wider population, the EU continues to be seen in a positive light. According to the Pew Research Center’s Global Indicators Database, 47 percent of Brazilians held a favorable opinion of the EU in 2019.13 As Brazil’s economic and political crisis has deepened over recent years without showing signs of subsiding, Europe is seen as an attractive destination for a growing number of Brazilians who are planning to emigrate. Over the past fifteen years, more than 170,000 Brazilians obtained European citizenship, and citizenship requests have increased substantially during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2019, Italy was the foreign country that granted the most passports to Brazilians, followed by Portugal and Spain.14 Still, the number of Brazilians residing in the United States—approximately 1.8 million—remains far higher than the number living in Europe, thought to be at least 800,000.15

Migration played practically no role in interviews and came up only once, when an interlocutor expressed admiration for Merkel’s decision to welcome a large number of Syrian refugees in 2015. Interviewees did not mention the digital economy specifically.

Security and Norms

Security came up in discussions of Brazil’s acquisition of the Swedish fighter jet Gripen, and especially in conversations with military men in the context of deforestation, climate change, and Brazil’s sovereignty.16 Several interlocutors were contacted again after Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, and the general perception was that the conflict had the potential to strengthen the EU’s role in international security. Still, the belief remained dominant that the United States continues to play a crucial role in European security, limiting the EU’s remit as an independent player or agenda setter in this area.

Similarly, most interlocutors did not characterize the EU as an agenda setter in the realm of global norms, a concept seen as somewhat abstract. In a more indirect fashion, though, the issue emerged repeatedly, for example in the context of the fight against fake news: interviewees described the German government’s February 2022 decision to force the messaging service Telegram to shut down several channels spreading fake news as a potential model for Brazil.

Trade and the Environment

The EU was Brazil’s second-largest trading partner in 2020, after China. While Brazil’s trade with the Asian country stood at $67 billion, trade with the EU was $28 billion, with the United States coming in third at $21 billion.17 However, most interviewees ranked the EU behind both China and the United States in terms of importance.

This low perception of the EU may have two causes. First, while Brazil has a trade agreement with the EU via Mercosur, the bloc does not often appear in official lists of Brazil’s major trade partners, which tend to include individual European countries. In the public debate, European heads of state and government remain far more visible than leaders of EU institutions. Second, in the geopolitical realm, Brazilians see the United States and China as more influential than the EU, which may make their economic importance appear somewhat greater than it actually is. Still, “an important economic and trade partner” was the most common definition that interlocutors first offered when asked to characterize the EU from Brazil’s perspective.

Given the prominence of the subject in Brazil’s public debate, it is not surprising that interviewees mentioned the EU’s stance on climate change quite frequently, even though these mentions included both positive evaluations and suggestions that Europe was adopting a hypocritical stance. Indeed, interpretations of Europe’s position on the environment ranged widely from Brazilian environmentalists’ last hope to criticism of the EU’s use of climate change as a veil to defend its economic interests and keep Brazilian products out of the European market, through to complaints about EU meddling in Brazil’s internal affairs. Among the armed forces, growing environmental concerns in Europe—for example, the debate about whether ecocide should become an international crime—were seen as a potentially serious threat to Brazilian sovereignty in the future.18

These security concerns are hard to manage because they are, to some extent, the stuff of conspiracy theories: no European government would ever consider occupying the Amazon. But that does not make them irrelevant, and from Brazil’s perspective there are genuine concerns about the country’s capacity to police a tropical forest the size of Western Europe. Given how entrenched the armed forces are in Brazilian politics today, it is very unlikely that these concerns will vanish quickly, even if a candidate with more moderate views beats Bolsonaro in the October 2022 presidential election.

Private-sector representatives naturally view the EU and its relationship with Brazil through the prism of trade and the economy, too. Just like interlocutors in the public sector, they see Brexit largely in the context of what it may mean for trade negotiations and whether the departure of a more pro-trade member of the EU would make the bloc less open to liberalization. Notably, while some chief executives of large global companies, as well as heads of business associations, have publicly warned that Brazil’s negative global image poses a risk for Brazilian firms, interlocutors from chambers of commerce, the financial markets, and international companies were privately less convinced that Brazil’s environmental strategy posed any fundamental risk at this stage.19

Indeed, while many foreign investors have pulled out of the Brazilian stock market and European governments have openly questioned the ratification of the trade agreement with Mercosur, pointing to environmental destruction in Brazil, the dominant perception seems to be that this rhetoric is a fig leaf for protectionism. One observer pointed out that France had always been opposed to ratifying the trade deal and simply used the 2019 Amazon fires to strengthen its case. These remarks are interesting in that part of the Brazilian private sector seems to understand environmental concern as a facet of a more protectionist EU—a bloc that was previously seen in Brazil as relatively open and pro-trade.

Few interlocutors in the business sector believed that the growing political power of environmentalist parties could lead to more serious problems, such as the imposition of sanctions. Since neither the United States nor China has prioritized this issue in Brazil over recent years, it may be natural that the EU is so strongly associated with climate concern.

The Coronavirus Pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic does not seem to have fundamentally changed the way the EU is seen in Brazil. At the time of writing, China has won praise across Latin America for being the main provider of COVID-19 vaccines, even though Sinophobia has grown in Brazil over recent years, especially among Bolsonaro supporters. The United States was roundly criticized for being slow to share vaccines with other countries, while views on Europe in the context of the pandemic were largely neutral. Interviewees did not mention in detail issues such as debt relief or the EU’s role in international financial institutions, although that may change if Brazil’s economic situation worsens further as a consequence of the pandemic.

EU Coherence

The fact that the EU does not speak with one voice is felt keenly in Brazil, in part because of the different ways in which national governments deal with trade and climate change issues. Divisions between France and Germany over how to handle the Bolsonaro government—Macron opted for a more confrontational approach while Merkel preferred a more diplomatic strategy—underline the fact that from a Brazilian perspective, European countries are seen to pursue their own foreign policies, which are not always aligned with those of other European nations.

In Brazil, uncertainty about the ratification process for trade agreements in Europe—for example, whether the opposition of one country is sufficient to block ratification—has created confusion. For instance, when the Austrian parliament voted against ratification of the trade deal with Mercosur and the French president became a leading opponent of the agreement, Brazilian observers struggled to make sense of whether these comments were made for electoral purposes or whether they made ratification impossible.

This confusion may be complicated further by the fact that the Spanish government is sometimes seen from Brazil as a gatekeeper for all things Latin American in Brussels, while Portugal also projects itself as a penholder in Europe when the topic is Brazil. Indeed, Portugal’s ambassador to Brazil has referred to himself as the “spokesperson” for the EU.20

With the exception of the subset of antiglobalist Bolsonaro supporters, Brazilians largely see a strong and unified Europe as positive both for the global order and for Brazil’s national interest. This view is particularly strong in the foreign ministry, where only a small number of diplomats share Bolsonaro’s foreign policy views and where Araújo’s March 2021 departure as foreign minister was almost universally celebrated.

Brazilians do not generally see the rise of Euroskeptic populists or Brexit as factors that significantly reduce the EU’s global influence or relevance. Indeed, while the Brazilian media closely covered the Brexit negotiations, the topic now emerges only in discussions of the possibility of signing a trade deal with London. Most interlocutors viewed the European project as irreversible, and several even expected the EU to gain a more unified foreign policy stance in the future. A minority believed that the rise of nationalism threatened to undo the European project.

The EU Compared with Other Global Actors

Potentially because of the EU’s more limited geopolitical visibility, Brazilians largely see the bloc as less threatening to Brazil than the United States, Russia, or China, although this perception is not universal. Biden’s election did not change the overall view that the EU’s international strategy is more influenced by the public debate on climate change than is the United States’ global strategy.

Interestingly, several policymakers said that managing Brazil’s asymmetrical relationship with the EU—Brazil is far less relevant to European trade than vice versa—was easier than handling Brazil’s similarly unequal relationships with China and the United States. That is in part because the EU’s foreign policy decisionmaking process is less centralized and thus easier to influence through European capitals where Brazil believes it has greater influence, such as Lisbon. Yet, several observers said they believed the debate about climate change and deforestation had the potential to permanently trouble the EU-Brazil relationship, given that the Brazilian armed forces are far more deeply embedded in the country’s politics than outside observers appreciate.

Those who described the EU as less threatening than the United States or China welcomed the possibility of a strong and unified EU in the context of growing tensions between Washington and Beijing. That is above all because Brazil, just like the European bloc, has an active interest in maintaining an equilibrium between the United States and China, ideally while preserving strong ties with both.

Indeed, growing tensions between Washington and Beijing produce a geopolitical challenge for Brasília, given Brazil’s geographic proximity to the United States, growing economic dependence on China, and historic aversion to long-standing alliances that limit strategic autonomy.21 This became particularly visible after the Trump administration pressured Brazil to exclude Chinese tech giant Huawei as a possible provider of equipment for the construction of Brazil’s fifth-generation technology (5G) network. At the same time, Beijing made it clear that such a move would be seen as a hostile act and could complicate the future of the bilateral relationship. After long planning to side with the United States, Bolsonaro was forced to perform a humiliating climbdown to preserve ties with China to obtain access to Chinese-made coronavirus vaccines.

When asked which countries could serve as models for Brazil in the context of its 5G network, most interviewees cited European countries, which also have to strike a delicate compromise in the emerging tech war between the West and China.22 Interestingly, while the only viable alternatives to Huawei would have been European firms such as Nokia and Ericsson, the EU played no visible role in debates about the subject. If there is an opportunity for Brussels and Brasília to cooperate in a bipolar order shaped by the great-power rivalry between Washington and Beijing, it so far remains unclear what this cooperation would look like in practice.

Although Brazilians do not see the EU as a declining power, it is worth emphasizing how quickly China has become Brazil’s biggest trading partner, making all other regions comparatively less relevant. China did not rank among Brazil’s top five trading partners at the turn of this century, but bilateral trade exploded in the following decade, turning China into Brazil’s top trading partner in 2009.23 It is thus no coincidence that pro-China business groups are gaining political influence and that political pressure on Bolsonaro to tone down his anti-China rhetoric has been swift and relatively effective.24 Brazilian Vice President Hamilton Mourão and Kátia Abreu, the chair of the Brazilian Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations and National Defense, have strong ties to agribusiness and are very well connected in Beijing.

Among Brazil’s intellectual elites, the EU remains, together with the United States, a reference point for policymakers who follow international affairs, not only from a cultural point of view but from a political one, too. Brazilian parties across the ideological spectrum look toward the United States to analyze political parallels—as Bolsonaro’s use of the term “Trump of the Tropics” to refer to himself and the debate about who could be a Brazilian Biden attest.25 But at times, policymakers draw comparisons between European and Brazilian political trends or wonder whether political developments in Europe, such as the rise of the Green Party in Germany, will eventually come to Brazil.

In the words of one analyst, “the EU is mostly seen in a positive light [in Brazil], be it as a global security provider, as a trustworthy partner in trade or due to its welfare state, living standards, educational achievements and cultural richness.”26 At the same time, most interviewees doubted the EU’s capacity to mitigate the consequences of the return of great-power politics between the United States and China, today a key dynamic in Latin American affairs. While several interlocutors recognized that the EU and Brazil face similar challenges vis-à-vis a multipolar order, there was little clarity as to how this similarity could be explored.

Future Priorities for EU-Brazil Relations

Based on the analysis above, five priorities come to mind for the future of EU-Brazil relations. These concern climate change, EU coherence, the war in Ukraine, norms and values, and recovery from the effects of the pandemic.

Climate Change

First of all, while security has long played no role whatsoever in the Brazil-EU relationship, Brazil’s military establishment views European environmental concerns as a potential risk to the country’s sovereignty, and the EU would be well advised to find a way to minimize this risk. High-level military talks about the geopolitical consequences of climate change could help mitigate this problem.

In the same way, while it is perhaps rarely expressed openly, there is a lingering belief among Brazilian policymakers and the business sector, especially the agricultural sector, that EU environmental politics is, in part, motivated by protectionist instincts. In Europe, Brazilian concerns are often brushed off as misconceived or the product of nationalist paranoia and limited to a few radicals, but ignoring these concerns altogether is unlikely to assuage them. Fears about Brazilian sovereignty over the Amazon tend to be far more deep-seated than many EU policymakers appreciate, and the two sides should address such concerns explicitly in bilateral talks.

Brazilian environmental movements are vibrant, but they are largely excluded and strongly criticized by the federal government, which often describes environmental NGOs as acting on behalf of foreign powers. Civil society groups, by contrast, see the EU as a vital partner as they seek to resist a government that regards weakening environmental rules as one of its core missions. Finding the right compromise between defending the EU’s environmental and economic interests vis-à-vis Brazil will be the most daunting challenge in the bilateral relationship over the coming years. While future Brazilian presidents may embrace a less strident and more constructive strategy on climate change, the EU must not overlook the fact that groups opposed to more stringent environmental regulation are on the rise in Brazil.

Ideally, any shift in strategy should involve reframing the debate away from environmentalism vs. development or environmentalism vs. Brazilian sovereignty toward an approach that does not consider these pairs to be inherently in tension. As long as Bolsonaro’s administration frames EU environmental concerns about the Amazon as a threat to Brazil’s sovereignty, he will have a strong political incentive to resist outside pressure to adopt a more constructive strategy to combat deforestation. After all, from a Latin American perspective, shaped by a deep-seated concern about the limited capacity of governments in the region to safeguard their borders, even benign comments by EU policymakers about deforestation can come across as arrogant or threatening.27

EU Coherence

On the one hand, Brazilian policymakers’ incomprehension of the EU’s ratification process for trade deals is, to some extent, inevitable given the bloc’s peculiar political decisionmaking structure. On the other hand, perhaps the two sides can do more to explain these realities to the Brazilian public, policymakers, and business community.

Specifically, the more the EU can speak with one voice on matters that concern Brazil, and the more the EU ambassador to Brazil or another leading EU policymaker can come across as an agenda setter in the bilateral relationship, the better Brazilians are likely to understand the EU’s decisionmaking structures. To a certain extent, the EU’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine—and the frequent appearances of von der Leyen and Borrell in the Brazilian news media—is likely to have altered Brazil’s public and elite perceptions of the EU somewhat in this regard.

The War in Ukraine

The geopolitical aftermath of the war in Ukraine is likely to have a negative impact on EU-Brazil relations, and the EU needs to handle the fallout carefully. After all, contrary to what Western policymakers may have expected, Brazil has sought to articulate a largely neutral and ambiguous stance on the war. Days before the invasion, Bolsonaro visited Moscow and expressed solidarity with Russia. The president has refused to criticize Russia over the war, and while Brazil has voted in favor of several resolutions critical of Russia in the United Nations General Assembly, it abstained from a resolution that sought to suspend the country from the organization. The Brazilian government also opposes the imposition of sanctions on Russia, and in response to Western calls to suspend Moscow from the Group of Twenty (G20), Brasília maintained that Russia should continue to be part of the group.

Western pressure on Brazil to participate in punishing or isolating Russia is therefore likely to be counterproductive, and economic necessities—above all, Brazil’s imports of Russian fertilizer—explain why business elites strongly support the government’s neutral stance. Irrespective of who wins Brazil’s October 2022 presidential election, policymakers in Brussels must find a way around this structural obstacle and prevent it from contaminating other areas of the bilateral relationship. More specifically, the EU should make clear that it is willing to provide large-scale aid to help developing countries address the negative economic consequences of the war in Ukraine, which have been aggravated by the West’s sanctions on Russia.

Norms and Values

Brazilians recognize the EU’s important role in the area of norms, but cooperation on human rights, the environment, and multilateralism is currently very difficult because of profound ideological differences between Brasília and Brussels. Bolsonaro actively sided with Trump and still seeks closer ties with far-right governments whose support for the EU is ambiguous.

Although this situation makes a more ambitious bilateral agenda impossible, there are two ways to work around these obstacles. First, in light of Brazil’s radical anti-multilateral foreign policy, governors, mayors, and nonstate actors are seeking to engage internationally not only to mitigate the negative impacts of the federal government’s policies but also to ensure that Brazil continues to be part of global conversations on issues from human rights to environmental protection and internet governance. These actors are eager to engage with the EU, and European support for them is vital to help address the erosion of democracy and growing threats to human rights in Brazil.

Second, while the Bolsonaro government is keen to reduce the influence of multilateral institutions it deems threatening to Brazil’s sovereignty, outside actors have been able to maintain cooperation on more technical issues that cannot be exploited easily to mobilize the president’s core supporters. Particularly on internet governance and the fight against corruption, two issues where the EU plays a vital global role, numerous opportunities continue to exist. For example, when it comes to combating fake news online, the EU and Brazil face similar challenges in finding the right balance between limiting the proliferation of false information on platforms such as Telegram and preserving free speech. Meanwhile, cooperation between anticorruption watchdogs has the potential to expand, particularly if Brazil obtains OECD membership.

The Post-Pandemic Recovery and External Aid

Finally, Brazil is set to face a long and frustrating recovery after the economic collapse induced by the coronavirus pandemic. A severe mishandling of the pandemic, high infection rates, historically high unemployment, and limited fiscal space for long-term support for the poorest will inevitably increase the risk of political instability. Millions of Brazilians who escaped poverty and joined the new middle class during the commodity boom of the 2000s slid back into poverty in the 2010s and now realize that they may never regain the socioeconomic status they achieved twenty years ago. Across Latin America, poverty rates now stand at their highest in two decades, and ideological divisions make meaningful regional cooperation difficult.

In light of this situation, Brazil—once a provider of development and humanitarian aid—may come to depend more on external support; this has become clear as the Bolsonaro government has struggled to obtain enough COVID-19 vaccines. While deeply unfortunate, the situation offers an opportunity for the EU to project itself as a provider of aid in Latin America, particularly in regions and countries whose populations are not yet fully vaccinated.

In the same way, the EU has the potential to support the region in coping with the ongoing Venezuelan migration crisis, which, despite its size, garners far less international attention than other crises. And calls for Brazil and neighboring countries to do more to protect the Amazon can generate positive results only if the EU and other international actors are willing to provide large-scale aid for the benefit of the environment.


Despite Brazil’s multiple political, diplomatic, and economic obstacles, there is no doubt that several of the world’s most pressing challenges—such as climate change—can only be tackled with the country’s active participation. Likewise, a better understanding of the origins of pandemics reveals that helping Brazil reduce deforestation will be a crucial element of a global strategy to reduce the risk of future pandemics. That is because deforestation and the growing human presence in the Amazon forest increase the risk of a deadly virus, bacterium, or fungus jumping species, possibly sparking a new pandemic.28

In the same way, helping developing countries like Brazil to attenuate the negative consequences of the economic fallout of the war in Ukraine—either by offering economic aid or by excluding the purchase of fertilizers and related goods from the sanctions on Russia—will allow the EU to project itself as a relevant provider of global goods. While there are numerous complex political hurdles that prevent ties from regaining their previous intensity, the EU continues to be well positioned to work around these difficulties, mitigate the damage, and engage with Brazil.

Oliver Stuenkel is a nonresident scholar with the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is also an associate professor of international relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo, Brazil.


1 Oliver Stuenkel, “Bolsonaro Fans the Flames,” Foreign Affairs, August 30, 2019,

2 Samantha Pearson and Paulo Trevisani, “Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro Faces Pressure Over Amazon Fires,” Wall Street Journal, August 23, 2019,

3 Andreia Verdélio, “Bolsonaro: Brazil Works to Meet Requirements, Join OECD,” Agência Brasil, January 15, 2020,

4 Maria Emilia Alencar, “Bolsonaro acha que Meio Ambiente é ‘coisa de comunista’, mas ecologia brasileira nasceu com militares, diz Alfredo Sirkis” [Bolsonaro Thinks the Environment Is a “Communist Thing,” but Brazilian Environmentalism Was Born With the Military, Says Alfredo Sirkis], Radio France Internationale, July 2, 2020,

5 See, for example, “O que apareceu de Bolsonaro é ‘irrisório’, diz general Heleno sobre ex-assessor” [What Appeared From Bolsonaro Is “Ridiculous,” Says General Heleno About Former Adviser], Gazeta do Povo, May 9, 2022,

6 Ernesto Araújo, “Trump e o Ocidente” [Trump and the West], Cadernos da Política Externa 3, no. 6 (2017).

7 Wesley Rahn, “Germany Hosts Latin America and Caribbean Conference in Berlin,” Deutsche Welle, May 28, 2019,

8 Oliver Stuenkel, “Latin American Governments Are Caught in the Middle of the U.S.-China Tech War,” Foreign Policy, February 26, 2021,

9 Oliver Stuenkel, “International Pressure Can Save the Amazon from Bolsonaro,” Financial Times, August 10, 2020,

10 Oliver Stuenkel, “A Problem for German Trade Ambitions: Brazil’s Environment Minister,” Americas Quarterly, July 30, 2020,

11 Miriam Gomes Saraiva, “What Next for Brazil-EU Relations?,” London School of Economics and Political Science, September 4, 2019, See also Miriam Gomes Saraiva, “The Brazil-European Union Strategic Partnership, From Lula to Dilma Rousseff: A Shift of Focus,” Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional 60, no. 1 (2017):

12 Oliver Stuenkel, “Protecting Multilateralism Against Anti-Globalists: The Case of Brazil,” PeaceLab, November 5, 2020,

13 “Global Indicators Database,” Pew Research Center, accessed April 10, 2022,

14 Clara Rellstab and Júlia Marques, “Itália bate Portugal e é país da UE que mais concede cidadania a brasileiros” [Italy Beats Portugal to Be the EU Country That Grants Most Citizenship to Brazilians], O Estado de S. Paulo, July 11, 2019,,italia-bate-portugal-e-e-pais-da-ue-que-mais-concede-cidadania-a-brasileiros,70002917896; Christian Edel Weiss, “Em 15 anos, 170 mil brasileiros obtiveram cidadania europeia” [In Fifteen Years, 170,000 Brazilians Obtained European Citizenship], Deutsche Welle, July 25, 2019,

15 Amanda Gorziza and Renata Buono, “Quantidade de brasileiros que vivem nos Estados Unidos é igual à população de Curitiba” [The Number of Brazilians Living in the United States Is Equal to the Population of Curitiba], Revista Piauí, January 19, 2022,,aumentou%20para%201%2C8%20milh%C3%A3o; Assis Moreira, “Número de brasileiros morando no exterior nunca foi tão grande como agora” [The Number of Brazilians Living Abroad Has Never Been Greater Than It Is Now], Valor Econômico, September 3, 2021,

16 Oliver Stuenkel, “How Biden Can Change Bolsonaro’s Mind on the Amazon,” Americas Quarterly, January 11, 2021,

17 “General Exports and Imports,” Brazilian Ministry of Industry and Commerce,

18 “Is It Time for ‘Ecocide’ to Become an International Crime?,” Economist, February 28, 2021,

19 Daniela Chiaretti, “Desmatamento afeta imagem do país e causa preocupação” [Deforestation Affects the Country’s Image and Causes Concern], Valor Econômico, August 28, 2019,

20 Giuliana Miranda, “Somos porta-vozes do Brasil na União Europeia, diz novo embaixador de Portugal” [We Are Spokespersons for Brazil in the European Union, Says New Portuguese Ambassador], Folha de São Paulo, January 21, 2021,

21 Stuenkel, “Latin American Governments.”

22 Ibid.

23 Oliver Stuenkel, “In Spite of Bolsonaro, China Quietly Deepens Its Influence in Brazil,” Americas Quarterly, November 11, 2019,

24 Ibid.

25 Peter Baker, “Trump Welcomes Brazil’s Bolsonaro but Leaves Tariffs on the Table,” New York Times, March 7, 2020,

26 Elena Lazarou, Tatiana Coutto, and Bruno Theodoro Luciano, “Brazil’s Perceptions of the EU After Brexit,” in Changing Perceptions of the EU at Times of Brexit, eds. Natalia Chaban, Arne Niemann, and Johanna Speyer (London: Routledge, 2020),

27 Stuenkel, “International Pressure.”

28 Fabio Zuker, “Next Pandemic? Amazon Deforestation May Spark New Diseases,” Reuters, October 19, 2020,