The world is undergoing radical change. A long period in which it was dominated by North America and Western Europe is nearing its end. And at the same time we are facing a Great Transformation, a transition of the whole of our society to a different energy system. It is not yet possible to discern the exact contours of this new world. Only one thing is certain, which is that although the experience of previous centuries can offer us lessons and insights, it cannot signpost the way to a sustainable 21st century. The fourth victory of the Brazilian Workers’ Party (PT) in the presidential elections at the end of October provides a good reason to reflect on the unrealised potential in the relationship between Brazil and Europe.

Over the last ten years, the attitude of the European media towards Brazil has changed repeatedly. For some years, former President Lula’s careful and consensus-seeking approach was held up as a successful model of a sensible politics of the left. For a short time, his successor Dilma Rousseff was also able to surf a wave of international goodwill. But in the last few years the mood changed. The coalition government led by the Workers‘ Party (PT) found itself being criticised from all sides. For some, it was not sufficiently business-friendly. It was above all the increase in state control over natural resources, especially oil, that prompted systematic criticism in the international business press. Mexico, which is privatising its oil, was held up in contrast as a model of successful pragmatism. The Economist openly advocated voting for the opposition candidate Aécio Neves. For others, the Workers‘ Party had abandoned too many of its principles in government and had adapted too far to suit the other parties and the dominant financial interests, from mega-projects like Belo Monte and the FIFA World Cup through to alliances with agro-business.

Masters‘ mansions and slaves‘ shanties

Brazil is not the biggest and most important of the upcoming nations currently challenging the hegemony of the North Atlantic ‘West‘. But by virtue of its democratic and constitutional structures and the welfare state reforms currently being implemented, it would be the country best suited for a strategic partnership with Europe. One reason is the cultural proximity to a continent where, although many different influences come together, they definitely include important European ones. The culture, language, religion, legal system and constitution are all substantially shaped by Europe. Another is that Europe bears responsibility for colonialism and slavery. But the Brazilian state, too, openly and self-confidently acknowledges its African roots and also acknowledges its responsibility as the receiving nation for millions of African slaves, of both genders.

In the slave-owning Brazilian society that ended officially only in 1888 and that still persists today to some degree in the minds of the middle and upper classes, the master’s mansion and the slaves‘ shanties may have stood next to each other, but this only made the social hierarchy all the more manifest. The slave-owning mentality lives on in the service society. Today there are still over six million female servants, though until recently they have rights to social security and to a minimum wage. This has not only raised living costs for the traditional middle class, it has also shaken their self-esteem. Although things are better today than they were 15 years ago for the middle class too, their status anxiety has increased dramatically. Airports and universities bustle with the upwardly mobile, and a new middle class is competing with the old. This is one of the main causes of the deep-lying hostility towards the PT, which is responsible for this rise. The emergence of a middle class society is perceived as a threat by the traditional middle class. Just as in the Europe of the 1920s and 1930s, this opens the door to authoritarian and racist politics. But if Brazil really is to become a middle class society, that middle class will no longer be made up only of whites.

A 20th century-style welfare state

Just as the labour movement and social democracy in Europe set in train far-reaching advances in civilization in the first half of the 20th century, so in Brazil today a similar process is taking place: the previously marginalised are becoming citizens. Brazil proudly announced at the UN General Assembly in September that it had conquered the problem of hunger, at least in its most brutal forms. In recent years social security systems have been built up, and a new middle class is in the process of emerging. In the report The State of Food Insecurity in the World published by the United Nations‘ Food and Agriculture Organisation and in the UNDP World Development Report 2014 there are many positive references to social policy initiatives that barely receive a mention in the media: poverty has declined from 24.3% (2001) to 8.4% (2012); 22.1 million are at least no longer in extreme poverty. The proportion of those suffering from undernourishment has fallen from 10.7% (2000-02) to less than 5% (2004–06). Between 2001 and 2013 the income of the poorest population quintile rose three times faster than that of the richest quintile. 43 million children get a school meal, and a large proportion of the food comes from family farms. 1.6 million social housing units have been built since 2009 alone, and unemployment has fallen below seven percent.

However, these successes are at the same time still wedded to a naive conception of progress as it was understood in the postwar period of the 20th century: large-scale construction projects, a dogmatic belief in technology, growth and the exploitation of nature at any cost. So among social movements and environment campaigners there is fierce criticism of this neo-extractivist model of development, of wheeling and dealing in Congress, the alliances with the agricultural and car lobbies and the disastrous impact on sustainable urban development of the dominance enjoyed by real estate interests. The brief popularity of the ultimately unsuccessful Marina Silva in the opinion polls was an indication of the deep dissatisfaction with the government. This is compounded of anger over corruption and resentment against the upward social mobility of the poor together with the frustrated desire for functioning public institutions – whether hospitals, schools or public transport, because the quality of all of these still leaves much to be desired. Many people regularly spend hours stuck in traffic jams or wait „for ever“ in hospitals. Above all, however, higher educational qualifications do not automatically lead to better paid jobs. The glass ceiling in the labour market is a source of frustration for the new middle class.

A social and ecological transformation in the 21st century

So Brazil – like Europe – is a place of diversity, steeped in a history full of contradictions. It is torn between a past shaped by inequality, racism and authoritarianism and a potential – which can be sensed in the Brazilian love for life – to become the model for a colourful, diverse and just society. Whether this balancing act will succeed, only the future will tell. One thing however is clear: in no other BRICS state has the economic advance been accompanied by the extension of the institutions of democracy, social welfare and the rule of law. Only in Brazil has inequality fallen. The media in China and Russia particularly toe the government line. If corruption is being tackled, it is usually in order to silence critics of the regime. In Brazil, things are different: in comparison with her BRICS colleagues, Dilma Rousseff’s power is contained within narrow limits. The pursuit of justice has never been as unconstrained as it is today, which is why there are more accusations of corruption than ever before. The power of the government is substantially restricted by Congress and the justice system on one side and by a vigorous civil society and regime-critical commercial media on the other.

But Europe is linked to Brazil not by the past alone. Developments in Brazil over recent years have many similarities with the taming of European capitalism by the development of state social institutions over the course of the 20th century. Towards the end of his life, in “Ill Fares the Land,” Tony Judt celebrated this as a great advance in human civilization towards an inclusive and just society. And this at a time when the memory of this process is in danger of fading and Central Bank chief Draghi and even the Dutch government see the end of the European social model as having arrived. It is not pure coincidence that the undervaluation of the achievements of the 20th century is accompanied by the threat of a return to social patterns from the 19th century. Thomas Piketty, author of the bestselling “Capital in the 21st Century,” sees the danger of a new polarisation of wealth and income. Heredity is becoming a stronger factor again in determining life chances in Europe, too, and the social mobility of the 20th century is becoming rarer. These backward steps in social welfare – not only but principally in the south of Europe – must be monitored with concern.

Poverty and hunger in Europe

What does it say about the European community of values that the return of hunger and poverty is not a political scandal? 10 million more people threatened by poverty is not – yet – a sufficient reason for a political change of course towards effective initiatives for social cohesion. In this context, developments in Brazil provide some evidence that a policy of social cohesion is compatible with economic success – if the political will is there. If we in Europe on the other hand undermine our welfare state systems then a relapse into the brutal and authoritarian distribution conflicts of the first half of the 20th century cannot be ruled out. And an ecological transformation can hardly be realised under conditions of intensified distribution conflicts. So not all 20th century remedies are out of date.

It is true, however, that copying the European Way of Life and the car-centric city does not constitute a model of development for the 21st century. The social policy achievements of the PT governments have demonstrated the ecological consequences of social democratic politics: the cities are choked with gridlocked traffic, and infrastructure projects threaten both ecological regional development and the survival of indigenous peoples and peasants. Brazil could learn from Europe in this area, and Brazil’s social democrats could learn from Green politics. Urban ecology and the efforts to develop a socio-ecological infrastructure for mobility, energy and social care are important elements of a sustainable and fair socio-ecological transformation. At the global level this could mean for example that Europe‘s organic farming movements would link up with the Brazilian landless movement – specifically, to counter the trade liberalisation being pushed through on both continents by farming lobbies while agro-business continues to enjoy subsidies. Another area where lessons could be learned is in the dynamics of uneven development – in Brazil, the divide between Northeast and Southeast, in Europe that between northwestern Europe and the East and South. While the PT government has chosen to pursue a policy of social and territorial cohesion, in Europe both are under threat because of the priority given to austerity policies. Disintegration and social upheaval are becoming a genuine danger.

Partnership for a peaceful multipolar world

This extension of internal social participation in Brazil was accompanied by the adoption of a foreign policy stance that seeks a greater voice for what used to constitute the global economic periphery. The aim is a multipolar world. Internal social cohesion and effective participation on the global stage do not always go hand in hand; but they are doing so in Brazil today, just as they did in the golden years of European social democracy in the 1970s with Brandt, Palme and Kreisky. In spite of the similarities between their constitutional and social welfare institutions, Brazil receives little consideration from the EU as a mediator between the global North and the global South. And this despite the fact that such important bodies as the United Nations‘ Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Trade Organization are currently headed up by Brazilians. The hope is still that some of the BRICS states can be brought on board one at a time. The G8 and Russia was one such attempt, now abandoned. In the context of the new global configuration of power, however, it will in future be ever more illusory to believe that the world can be divided into friend and foe.

Brazilian foreign policy favours on the one hand regional integration in Latin (and especially South) America. This is neighbourhood politics: Mercosur as the economic area and Unasur as the political integration project. On the other hand, Brazil has increased its efforts to build up South-South cooperation initiatives, in which China plays an especially important role as a trading partner. Perceived national interests in economics and politics play the dominant role in the intensifying links to Africa, but cultural and scientific exchange is also important. All of this strengthens South-South links and weakens the hierarchical and unequal North-South relationships.

Dismantling existing hierarchies

Moreover, Brazil takes breaches of its sovereignty very seriously. President Rousseff was therefore extremely critical of the surveillance by the NSA and cancelled a meeting with president Obama. Finally, Brazil takes a cautious stance towards humanitarian interventions. These should be limited to military operations with the backing of the UN Security Council and international law. Brazil was annoyed by the tendentious interpretation of the UN mandate in the Libyan war of 2011, and the Europeans find it hard to understand Brazil’s stance towards economic sanctions against Russia. Brazilian foreign policy differs from European here, as it does in Brazil‘s more pragmatic approach to states like Iran and Cuba. But on these very issues a change of thinking seems to be under way in the West. Even the New York Times recently praised Cuba’s contribution to the fight against Ebola and criticised the West’s half-hearted approach. And the erosion of the Iraqi state and the fight against IS are beginning to qualify the attitude towards the ‚rogue state‘ of Iran.

It is neither possible nor desirable to resolve these contrasting interpretations of geopolitical conflicts. It is in part precisely because it is different that Brazil is the right partner for global cooperation and a realistic worldview which acknowledges conflicts of interest and tries to work them through. In view of the conflict with Russia, the complex situation in the Middle East and the unpredictability of the political leadership in India and China, it would make sense to strengthen the axis between the EU and Brazil. The potential foundation for this is given by the common historical heritage. It must be in the EU’s interests to have a peaceful world order that does not isolate the West from regional powers which are growing in strength. To that end it needs partners in the global South like Brazil, who desire a multipolar global order based on the rule of law and in which the existing hierarchies are gradually dismantled. Recognising this as a legitimate goal could contribute to a revival of international cooperation, which is currently in the doldrums. Disarmament, climate change, global security and the worldwide struggle against hunger and poverty are too important to be left to geo-military interests and the power strategies of multinational corporations.


This text first appeared in a slightly amended version on the website of Die Grüne Bildungswerkstatt.

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