Future Shocks 2023: Forging new partnerships in a polarised world [Policy podcast]

Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine is not only reshaping the security architecture of Europe, but is also influencing the EU’s position as a global actor.

© European Union, 2023, EPRS

Written by Myriam Goinard and Marc Jütten.

This paper is one of 10 policy responses set out in a new EPRS study which looks first at 15 risks facing the European Union, in the changed context of a world coming out of the coronavirus crisis, but one in which a war is raging just beyond the Union’s borders. The study then looks in greater detail at 10 policy responses available to the EU to address the risks outlined and to strengthen the Union’s resilience to them. It continues a series launched in spring 2020, which sought to identify means to strengthen the European Union’s long-term resilience in the context of recovery from the coronavirus crisis. Read the full study here.

The issue(s) in short: The challenge and the existing gaps

Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine is not only reshaping the security architecture of Europe, but is also influencing the EU’s position as a global actor. Moreover, with rising tensions between the US and China, the EU will find itself in an increasingly bipolar world. The multilateral rules-based global order is being challenged and strategic relations around the world redefined. Key states from the so-called ‘Global South’, which some experts have defined as the ‘swing states‘, are becoming more important for the West in order to isolate Russia and to address global challenges. This chapter looks at options for the EU to deal with such a new situation, and especially at potential new or upgraded partnerships with countries and regions, particularly in the Global South.

The external challenges for the EU are manifold and the issues at stake will dominate the geopolitical landscape in the coming decades: Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine and its implications for Europe’s security architecture, the global rules-based order and international law, China’s rise as a world power, the partnership between China and Russia, and their confrontation with the US. Moreover, the global threat of climate change is not only leading to the transformation of the European economy and lifestyle but also increasingly affects the Union’s external policy agenda. On top of that, the presidency of Donald Trump has shown that even the US can be disruptive and unpredictable, putting into question the foundation of the transatlantic alliance (NATO, multilateral trading system). The West’s determined response to the war in Ukraine has painted over frictions. However, even independently of the outcome of the 2024 US elections, it is not excluded that the US and Europe could drift further apart in the decades to come, as the most recent transatlantic trade dispute over subsidies for the green economy has shown. It is in the EU’s interest to develop its own autonomous role on the global stage and capacity to act, in order to pursue its values and objectives while maintaining or even deepening cooperation with key allies, as relevant.

Economic trends indicate that the EU has to face a new global order: by 2050, it is estimated that four (China, India, Indonesia and Brazil) of the five largest economies will come from the Global South, a term generally used to identify countries and regions in Latin America, Africa, Asia and Oceania. However, some experts are of the opinion that this term is misleading and not useful, as it gives the impression that the Global South is a homogenous group of nations.

China identifies itself as a member of the Global South and has positioned itself over the years as its voice and defender: in the United Nations, for example, China provides support to and coordinates positions of the Group of 77, a large group of developing countries. In March this year, China brokered a much-noticed peace deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran, strengthening its influence in the Middle East. Economically, China has outranked the EU in some regions of the Global South in which Europe traditionally had a dominant role: for example, in Latin America, China has overtaken the EU and is the region’s second-biggest trading partner after the US. In Africa, China is aiming to overtake the EU as Africa’s biggest trading partner by 2030.

All of this underlines how urgent it is for the EU to devise new strategies and step up efforts to engage with key emerging countries from the Global South. The EU can start this endeavour from a position of strength: it has the third-largest economy in the world and, with 440 million citizens, 23 million businesses and 15 % of global GDP, the EU is the world’s largest trading bloc. Moreover, the EU is collectively the world’s biggest donor of official development assistance (ODA) in the world, providing over €50 billion a year to help overcome poverty and advance global development.

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However, looking at the projections, the EU’s development does not look so rosy. On the contrary, demographic and economic indicators point to the EU losing importance on the world stage to the benefit of other players: the EU’s share of the world’s economy could decline from almost 15 % today to below 10 % by 2050. Europe’s share of the world population will also decrease: while the population in the EU is predicted to remain stable (around 445 million) in the next three decades, the world population is expected to grow to 9.7 billion by 2050.

In contrast, Asia will account for half of global economic output by 2050. By 2040, the economic weight of the Emerging 7 (E7: China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Russia, Mexico and Turkey) could be double the size of that of the G7 (US, UK, France, Germany, Japan, Canada and Italy). Demographic developments underscore the economic trend: already today, out of 8 billion people, 6.3 billion people live outside of the West, and for the next three decades Asia and Africa will drive the world’s population growth. Africa’s population, for example, will double by 2050 (although recent data indicate that Africa’s birth rate might be falling, which would impact Africa’s total population by 2100). More than eight in 10 people will live in Asia or Africa by the end of the century; their increasing importance manifests itself, for example, in Africa’s demand for G20 membership and its renewed call for reform of the UN Security Council (UNSC), indicating the continent’s quest for a greater say in world affairs.

An indication that the EU will have to deal with an increasingly self-confident Global South in the future is the lack of support from some countries in the Global South for declarations or resolutions condemning Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. China, India and South Africa were among the 32 countries that abstained in the latest UN resolution in February 2023 calling for an end to the war and demanding that Russia leave Ukrainian territory. Although the EU is the biggest provider of financial assistance globally, voting behaviour at the UN has shown that African countries in particular, which are by far the largest recipients of EU and US development assistance, abstained and did not join the Western alliance. In fact, the number of countries actively condemning Russia has fallen from 131 to 122, as some emerging economies have shifted to a neutral position.

Brazil, for example, an important strategic partner of the EU, condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and voted in favour of the key UN resolutions, but refuses to apply sanctions against Russia and the delivering of weapons to Ukraine. President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva called on the EU and the US to stop sending weapons to Ukraine and, after meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in April 2023, he even declared that the US should stop encouraging war. However, some experts discuss the possibility that a country or a group of countries from the Global South family could play an important role in pushing Ukraine and Russia into peace negotiations. There are already initiatives by African leaders to speak with Ukraine and Russia regarding food security-related issues.

Another example of the increasing political role countries from the Global South play in international fora is last year’s G20 summit in Bali: India, Indonesia, Mexico, Argentina and South Africa were decisive in overcoming differences between the traditional geopolitical players and enabling the G20 to produce the final declaration. In addition, members of the BRICS Group hold the current and next G20 presidencies (India (2023), Brazil (2024) and South Africa (2025)), which should mean that the interests of the Global South will continue to come to the fore.

Position of the European Parliament

The European Parliament adopted a resolution on 6 July 2022 on the EU and the defence of multilateralism, in which it pointed out that the EU needs to find new ways to engage with countries from the Global South and to do this on an equal footing with them, as equal partners. In its resolution of 18 January 2023 on the implementation of the common foreign and security policy (CFSP), Parliament ‘underscores that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has highlighted the need for the EU to continue building alliances and understanding among partners and to intensify cooperation with existing like-minded partners around the globe, especially with transatlantic NATO allies, while expanding its partnerships, in particular with countries in the Global South’. On the other hand, Parliament stresses in the same resolution that ‘the direct or indirect support of a third country for the illegal positions of Russia, namely by voting with Russia at the UN General Assembly on relevant resolutions or by helping it circumvent EU sanctions, should bring clear, swift and specific consequences in the EU’s political and trade relations with that country’.

In the current legislative term, Parliament has placed a strong emphasis on relations with the African continent, notably with the resolution of 25 March 2021 on a new EU-Africa Strategy – a partnership for sustainable and inclusive development; the resolution of 23 June 2022 on the future of EU-Africa trade relations; and the recommendation of 5 October 2022 on the Horn of Africa. In these resolutions, Parliament insists that the future relationship must move away from a donor-recipient dynamic and calls for stronger EU support for Africa’s integration into the global economy. Parliament also calls for the EU to support Africa’s request to expand the UN Security Council in order to include permanent representation for the continent. In addition, Parliament supports India’s bid for permanent membership of a reformed UN Security Council.

Following the adoption of a joint communication on the EU strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific in September 2021, Parliament adopted two resolutions, one on 22 March 2022 on the EU and the security challenges in the Indo-Pacific and one on 5 July 2022 on the Indo-Pacific strategy in the area of trade and investment.

The European Parliament has an intensive political dialogue with countries in the Global South, through its multilateral assemblies (Eurolat, Parliamentary Assembly for the Union for the Mediterranean, EU-ACP joint parliamentary assembly), its bilateral standing delegations and its frequent Committee missions to Africa, Latin America and Asia. In March 2022, Parliament launched an initiative of global interparliamentary outreach to its partners across the world to discuss Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine and mobilise support for Ukraine.

Pyramid of instruments at the disposal of the EU and its Member States
Figure 33 – Pyramid of instruments at the disposal of the EU and its Member States

EU policy responses (Commission and Council responses so far)

Due to the multitude and heterogeneity of the Global South countries, there is no single coherent EU strategy towards the Global South as such. The EU operates within the broader framework of CFSP, the 2016 EU global strategy, the 2021 multilateralism strategy, and the 2022 Strategic Compass, but also through tailor-made approaches to regions and countries such as the recent strategies towards the Horn of Africa and the Sahel. In addition, the EU has a series of regional and bilateral partnerships in place, such as those with the African Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), South Africa, India and Brazil. Moreover, the EU has concluded political, trade and economic partnership agreements with regions and countries from the Global South, such as the Economic Partnership Agreement with the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement.

The current Commission and High Representative/Vice-President (HR/VP) have taken this regional approach further, for example with the EU strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, the joint communication ‘Towards a comprehensive strategy with Africa‘, the establishment of a strategic partnership with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the resumed negotiations on a free trade agreement with India.

Another region from the Global South with which the EU wants to strengthen ties is Latin America. Almost eight years passed between the previous fully-fledged EU-CELAC Summit and the one held on 17-18 July 2023 under the Spanish Presidency of the Council of the European Union – which underlines that the EU has neglected the region for too long. Latin America and the EU Member States together represent nearly a third of the UN membership. Latin America is also a region where an overwhelming majority of states are democracies and which has deep cultural and historical ties with Europe. Therefore, it is a strategic ally in the EU’s pursuit of its values and interests in multilateral fora, as the voting behaviour at the UN has shown. For example, the LAC states voted by a vast majority in favour of the 2022 and 2023 key UN resolutions on Ukraine. Against this background, the HR/VP and the European Commission adopted a joint communication setting out a new agenda for relations between the EU and Latin America and the Caribbean on 7 June 2023. It aims for a stronger and modernised strategic partnership, to be achieved through reinforced political engagement, boosted trade and investment, and building more sustainable, fair and interconnected societies through Global Gateway investments. The initiative paved the way for the EU-CELAC Summit at Heads of State and Government level on 17-18 July 2023.

One area where the EU has recently taken a global rather than a continental or regional approach is in financial and development assistance. With the adoption of the NDICI/Global Europe instrument for the Multiannual Financial Framework 2014-2020, the EU pulled together – in a single instrument with global scope – all previous strands of assistance, including the European Development Fund (EDF), which was until then an off-budget instrument. This was reflected in 2019 in the creation of the post of Commissioner for International Partnerships (instead of the previous post for international cooperation and development). The EU has, furthermore, launched the Global Gateway Initiative (announced in a December 2021 Communication) bringing together the EU and EU Member States with their financial and development institutions and mobilising the private sector to boost sustainable investments in low- and middle-income countries, especially in the areas of green and digital transition, but also health and education; half of the investments of up to €300 billion should be allocated to projects in Africa. The Global Gateway, which has been widely presented as the EU alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, is coordinated with similar initiatives by like-minded partners, in particular the G7, as was highlighted at the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment event at the Hiroshima G7 Summit in May 2023.

The EU is also complementing the regional approach with a global one when addressing the geopolitical consequences of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, with the adoption of the Strategic Compass (the plan of action for strengthening the EU’s security and defence policy by 2030) and, in June 2022, of a dedicated action plan, putting EU and EU Member States’ resources together to increase the EU’s bilateral engagement with key partners in its immediate neighbourhood, Asia, Africa and Latin America and to help them mitigate the most immediate consequences of the war.

Timeline of the EU's new partnerships in a polarised world
Figure 34 – Timeline of the EU’s new partnerships in a polarised world

Obstacles to implementation of response

The ‘Global South’ concept is far from being unproblematic and is challenged by several authors and decision-makers, either because it seems to play into the Russian and Chinese narrative opposing ‘the West’ to all ‘the rest’ of the world (see here from the French and British foreign affairs ministers) or due to its overly simplistic, undifferentiated approach to very diverse countries (see here, for example, Timothy Garton Ash’s position). As HR/VP Josep Borrell put it, ‘the use of ‘Global South’ projects a degree of unity on what is in reality a very diverse group with huge differences in conditions, aspirations and alignments. [….] We have every interest in using language that promotes the search for common ground and avoids bloc-to-bloc thinking.’ This makes it conceptually difficult and political sensitive to think of a comprehensive EU approach to these countries and the type of new or upgraded partnership that could be needed.

A concrete example of how complex the shaping of relations with the Global South can be is the EU’s attempt to strengthen its relations with Brazil, a member of the G20, BRICS, Mercosur and a key state in Latin America given its territory, population and GDP. The EU has a longstanding partnership with Brazil based on shared fundamental values and principles, on a strategic partnership and on a number of additional agreements such as a framework cooperation agreement, a science and technology cooperation agreement and the EU-Mercosur framework cooperation agreement. This is one of many reasons why it makes sense for the EU to further strengthen relations with Mercosur and apply the association agreement for which an ‘agreement in principle’ was reached (on the trade pillar in 2019 and on the political dialogue and cooperation part in 2018). However, the agreement has met resistance within the EU, in particular because of the deforestation in the Amazon: Member States, national parliaments and also the European Parliament have raised concerns, the latter emphasised in a resolution of 7 October 2020 that the EU-Mercosur agreement cannot be ratified as it stands. Since then, the Commission and the EEAS have been working on an additional instrument to accompany the agreement, aimed at addressing concerns about sustainability and the potential environmental effects of the agreement, notably on deforestation. Brazil’s President, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, said that he was in favour of the agreement but that he wanted to renegotiate some areas of the deal in favour of Brazil’s industrial development. The reopening of negotiations could be time-consuming and jeopardise the entire agreement. If the deal fails, China would likely be the beneficiary, as the country stands ready to further deepen its trade relations with Mercosur. Already today, China is the region’s top trading partner.

The long-awaited conclusion of the ‘Post-Cotonou’ Agreement between ACP countries and the EU is also delayed due to the opposition of some EU Member States – first Hungary and then Poland – to giving their green light to the final text, straining relations with key partners in the South.

Moreover, the mushrooming of sectoral agreements proposed by the EU on top of broader, mostly regional agreements, such as green partnerships, partnerships on critical raw materials, or the voluntary partnership agreements under the EU’s Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) initiative, makes the EU approach more difficult to grasp and appreciate, especially by the local population concerned.

Another key obstacle to the development of new partnerships in the South is the anti-EU rhetoric fuelled especially by Russia’s and China’s manipulation of discourse and of information, be it in Asia, Latin America or Africa. EU programmes and offers are often portrayed as neo-colonial and hegemonic, serving EU interests only, and the EU’s action in rallying support for Ukraine as a ‘double standard’ contrasting with an alleged lack of EU engagement in the conflicts of the South.

While colonial history is an important component in relations between the Global South and the EU and should not be neglected, accusations of post-colonialism are part of a broader strategy of authoritarian regimes to counter EU policies towards the Global South, including its support for democracy.

Policy gaps and pathway proposals

The lack of consensus on the clear condemnation of Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine by a significant number of countries from the Global South and the flourishing aggressive anti-Western rhetoric call for renewed efforts, from the EU side, to understand the positions of these countries and their perception of the EU and its policies, however diverse they are, and to clarify the terms and content of the partnership.

A ‘listening and understanding’ exercise should take into consideration elements such as the legacy of the past, including colonialism and historical ties, and tackle in a frank way the irritants in the relations between these countries and the EU like the rejection of the universal character of human rights, the slow finalisation of bilateral or regional agreements, accusations linked to so-called ‘double standards‘, or allegations of ‘green protectionism‘. To achieve this, the EU could:

  • review existing fora for political dialogue with authorities and outreach to civil societies in Africa, Asia and Latin America, modernise them or introduce new formats, in particular with young people, where needed, to allow for more interactive and issue-based discussions, address criticism and embrace a deeper understanding of societal dynamics;
  • put a stronger focus in the impact assessment of EU legislation on its impact for stakeholders outside the EU, including small producers, and involve the European External Action Service (EEAS) in this exercise. The Better Regulation Toolbox highlights that ‘the assessment of potential impacts of internal EU policies and initiatives on third countries is crucial’ and that ‘if impacts are significant, a thorough assessment is essential to ensure that the external dimension of the EU initiative is considered from the very start’. However, this assessment is not yet done systematically, or not to the required extent (see, for example, the EPRS initial appraisal of the impact assessment accompanying the corporate sustainability due diligence proposal);
  • use evidence related to the impact of EU policies and legislation on third countries when discussing upcoming EU programmes under the NDICI-Global Europe and other instruments, in order to accompany the necessary transition/adjustments where appropriate;
  • step up efforts to join forces with countries or organisations from the Global South to reform the multilateral framework and to facilitate their greater inclusion in multilateral fora – for example, to enlarge the G20 to include the African Union as a fully-fledged member.

On the other hand, the EU should promote its positive agenda in different areas (top aid provider, leader in the green and digital transition, etc.) and:

  • give more visibility to and clarify the EU offer and concrete actions, including EU assistance and the EU’s contribution to peace and security across the world, and counter narratives of double standards. To facilitate this, there could, for each country, be a clear and comprehensive overview of the framework for bilateral engagement between the EU and third countries, including all sectoral partnerships, financial support, CSDP missions, etc.;
  • invest more in communication on the ground (including framing of the EU’s policies and offer) and public diplomacy in partner countries, and address misrepresentations, manipulation of public opinion and propaganda about EU action; equip relevant EU delegations with the tools to increase public diplomacy activities and to develop their strategic communication capabilities (as highlighted in Parliament’s recommendation of 15 March 2023 on the functioning of the EEAS and for a stronger EU in the world). This will require an increased budget for selected EU delegations;
  • further develop the Global Gateway initiative in partnership with the beneficiary countries, focusing on producing added value in these countries and helping them move up the value chains while achieving joint objectives (such as the green transition);
  • beyond communicating on the existing offer, the EU could develop a new generation of partnerships of equals to be discussed with countries of the Global South, especially democracies, to bring all strands of political, economic, financial and sectoral assistance and cooperation under a single framework, and agree on priorities to be jointly defended in multilateral fora. This could replace the concept of ‘EU strategic partners‘ and factor in the mushrooming sectoral agreements on issues such as critical raw materials and hydrogen, as well as new challenges such as space, data, biodiversity, etc.;
  • this approach could be reflected in an updated EU global strategy, the review of which is a longstanding request by the European Parliament.

The European Parliament has a key role to play in driving the discussion on these questions and implementing such policy options, either through its distinct parliamentary diplomacy or through its scrutiny, budgetary and legislative role.

Possible action

Forging new partnerships in a polarised world

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