Lula’s effort to get closer to two partners who may soon leave power

Lula and Pedro Sanchéz temporarily preside over Mercosur and the EU

Lula and Pedro Sanchéz temporarily preside over Mercosur and the EU

Photo: Reuters / BBC News Brazil

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (PT) started this week his 14th international trip in six months of government.

This time’s destination is Brussels, where he is participating in a meeting of the European Union (EU) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (Celac), which will feature dozens of heads of state from both regions.

On the sidelines of the meeting, on Tuesday (7/18), Lula will participate in a meeting with progressive leaders from Europe and Latin America, organized by the European Socialist Party.

The invitation to Lula to participate in the EU-Celac meeting came from the president of the Spanish government, Pedro Sánchez, of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOL). Spain currently presides over the European Union.

Since the government began international diplomatic efforts under the informal slogan of “Brazil is back” — to mark opposition to the government of Jair Bolsonaro, who according to analysts gave little priority to foreign policy —, Lula has sought rapprochement with two international leaders who will soon could be out of power: Pedro Sánchez, in Spain, and Alberto Fernandez, in Argentina.

Lula and Ursula von der Leyen after meeting in Brussels

Lula and Ursula von der Leyen after meeting in Brussels

Photo: Daniel Gallas/BBC / BBC News Brazil

Pedro Sanchez

Spain took over the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union last month. And this happens at a time when the European Union and Mercosur may be close to the final adjustments of a free trade agreement that has been discussed since 1999. Brazil presides — until December — Mercosur, also on a rotating basis.

Lula has sought rapprochement with Sánchez. The Brazilian’s first trip to Europe after taking office included Spain, in April.

The Spanish newspaper El País highlighted the ideological affinity between the two leaders. “Pedro Sánchez is almost as euphoric as Lula for the victory of the historic Brazilian unionist leader and the defeat of the ultra-rightist Jair Bolsonaro”, said the newspaper.

On the occasion, Sánchez said that the coincidence of the Brazilian presidencies in Mercosur and the Spanish presidency in the EU was an “excellent opportunity” for concrete advances to be made in trade agreements.

The Brazilian government had initially said that Vice President Geraldo Alckmin would attend the EU-Celac summit in Brussels. However, after a telephone conversation with Sánchez, Lula announced that he would personally attend the meeting.

The single most obvious point of contention between Lula and Sánchez is the question of Ukraine. In the press conference they held together, Lula said that it is useless to debate “who is right, who is wrong”. Sánchez, on the other hand, stated, alongside the Brazilian, that “in this war there is an aggressor and a victim of an attack” — adding that the aggressor is Russia.

Despite the rapprochement with Sánchez, experts indicate that there may be uncertainty about the rapprochement between the European Union and Mercosur — precisely because of Spain.

“Spain’s early elections on July 23 risk affecting Madrid’s effectiveness in driving deals during its presidency of the EU Council”, analyzes the consultancy group Eurasia Group.

In May, Sánchez brought forward Spanish elections for December, which will now be held next weekend. According to political analysts, the socialist leader’s objective is “to counteract a change in the political cycle that favors the right”.

The right won several victories in municipal elections held in May, raising fears on the left of a major ideological shift in the country.

Sánchez is running for re-election, but the leader in some polls is right-wing Alberto Núñez Feijóo, from the Popular Party. The growth of the ultra-right Vox party — and Feijóo’s conservative discourse to win over these voters — has raised fears among the Spanish left.

Although there could be a political shift this month in Spain, with the election of a leader with no ideological proximity to Lula, experts say it is not clear whether this would have an immediate effect on negotiations between the European Union and Mercosur. For now, the main opponents of the negotiations are France and Ireland.

Alberto Fernandez

Another international leader with whom Lula has great affinity — and also vital in European Union and Mercosur relations — is the president of Argentina, Alberto Fernández.

Argentina was Lula’s first international destination this year, when he took office. The visit in January was precisely to announce the return of Brazil to the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (Celac) – a group that the country had abandoned during the government of former President Jair Bolsonaro in 2021.

Alberto Fernández's term as president of Argentina ends in December

Alberto Fernández’s term as president of Argentina ends in December

Photo: Reuters / BBC News Brazil

The Argentine leader announced that he will not run for re-election in October this year. His term will end on December 10.

With three months to go before the election, Argentina’s political future is up in the air. Four candidates appear in opinion polls today: Sergio Massa (economy minister supported by Fernández), Patricia Bulrich (oppositionist linked to former president Maurício Macri), Javier Milei (from the extreme right) and Horacio Larreta (mayor of Buenos Aires, also linked to Macri). Of these candidates, Lula’s greatest ideological affinity is with Massa.

squid in europe

In Brussels, this week, Celac is again holding a summit with the European Union after an eight-year break.

The central themes of the summit are: climate change and just and sustainable transition; inclusive and fair digital transition; citizen security, social cohesion and combating transnational crime; and trade and sustainable development and post-pandemic recovery.

The war in Ukraine may figure in the summit’s final declaration, but there is no consensus between the parties on a joint position.

Lula arrived in Brussels on Sunday (7/16) and has his first commitments this Monday (7/17). He had a meeting with the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and is expected to participate in a European Union-Latin America business forum.

Throughout Monday, he participates in the EU-Celac summit and has meetings with leaders of Barbados (Premier Mia Mottley), Belgium (Premier Alexander de Croo), the European Parliament (Roberta Metsola), and the King of Belgium, Philippe — plus a gala dinner in the evening.

On Tuesday (7/18), Lula will have a meeting of progressive leaders with heads of state from Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Portugal, Dominican Republic, Germany, Denmark and Spain — according to the Itamaraty. The meeting is organized by former Swedish prime minister Stefan Löfven, who chairs the European Socialist Party.

On the same day, he participates in the summit’s plenary session and has bilateral meetings with leaders from Sweden (Premier Ulf Kristersson) and Denmark (Premier Mette Frederiksen). He should fly back to Brazil at the end of Tuesday or Wednesday morning.

Itamaraty said that it does not expect significant advances in the Mercosur-European Union agreement this week, since the summit will serve to deal with broader issues that affect all of Latin America and the Caribbean.

Currently, Mercosur member countries are discussing a suggested response prepared by Brazil to the most recent European proposal. Only after reaching a consensus in Mercosur — which should happen outside the summit deadline — should negotiations with Europe evolve.

The European Union and Mercosur closed a trade agreement in June 2019. However, this agreement has not yet been approved by each of the member countries. With the outbreak of war in Ukraine, the European Union has been signaling that it will give priority to closing trade agreements with other parts of the world – as part of its strategy of seeking alternative partners to Russia.

But the negotiations for a final agreement that is approved by all is difficult, mainly due to the resistance of countries like France and Ireland, who fear losses of their domestic producers with openings in the agriculture sector. Europeans have raised environmental concerns with Mercosur countries. Lula said this month that the South American bloc will not relinquish control of government purchases, which is a way of encouraging domestic companies, protecting them from competition from abroad.

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