Rosa Balfour and Marta Martinelli
Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine catapulted Europe to the forefront of a global crisis that is testing the continent’s aspiration to become a geopolitical actor. In response, the transatlantic relationship has solidified, and some of Europe’s allies have mobilized behind it. But the rest of the globe—representing over half of the world’s population—has been lukewarm in supporting the transatlantic response or has sat on the fence, with many states abstaining from condemning Russia and few supporting sanctions. From the perspective of the European Union (EU), which sees itself as a champion of multilateralism, a supporter of international solidarity, and the most generous donor of development aid, this reaction begs the question of why Europe has so few loyal friends in the Global South.
Taking an unusual and underexplored outside-in approach, this report uncovers views of Europe’s international role through the eyes of the Global South. In the past, the EU has commissioned polls about the way its image is perceived abroad, but the questions asked reflected the EU’s own self-perceptions.1 Scholarship—mostly from the United States, China, Russia, India, Brazil, South Africa, and the EU’s neighbors—has unearthed much evidence that shows how perceptions of Europe and the EU vary across countries, regions, and issues and are colored by burdensome historical legacies.2 The choice of geographies, however, left large parts of the Global South in the shade.
The existing literature reveals that the EU is recognized as three thematic types of actor: a global trade power or a provider of development aid; a political and security actor, supporting regional security through bodies such as the African Union or contributing to security operations abroad; and a normative power, supporting human rights and democracy, regional integration, and multilateral organizations.
This report investigates these issues and a broader range of themes that have recently become prominent. The climate crisis has made an extraordinary rise to the top of the policy agenda, including in economic and normative terms. The digital agenda is an increasingly strong component of the economy as well as a space for geopolitical competition. Migration policies are unquestionably shaping the way the EU engages with the rest of the world. And the coronavirus pandemic has brought health and global governance to the forefront of international cooperation.
The backdrop to these fields was a decade during which Europe underwent crisis after crisis, from the eurozone and migration challenges to Brexit and the rise of populism. These episodes deeply rattled the EU, but little is known about their ripple effects on the union’s global credibility. Each field also exposed dilemmas that arose as a consequence of other states and regions experiencing the EU through its external policies. These countries’ diverse views of the EU’s international role depend on geographic, economic, and cultural proximity; historical legacy; attachment to sovereignty; presence; and engagement.
One challenge in the design of this report was to avoid generating Eurocentric questions that test European self-perceptions abroad, such as “Is the EU a trade power? Or a normative power? Or a global regulator? A model of regional integration?” To avoid confirmation bias, researchers investigated the issues through open-ended questions in seven fields: trade, security, values, climate, the digital economy, migration, and the coronavirus pandemic. They explored questions that compared Europe or the EU—which are often seen interchangeably by less specialized audiences—with other actors, such as the United States, China, and Russia as well as individual European states, including former colonial powers. The researchers investigated general and historical perceptions of Europe by engaging with a variety of interlocutors—government officials, opposition figures, societal groups, business leaders, academics, students, and local community leaders—who were also asked about what they would like to see from the EU.
The result is a multifaceted mosaic of views from seven countries: Brazil, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Niger, the Philippines, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe. Each context views Europe through the prism of its own most pressing situations: populism and climate in Brazil; the Tigray conflict in Ethiopia; deforestation and trade in Indonesia; migration and security in Niger; the war on drugs and development imperatives in the Philippines; the political, humanitarian, migration, and economic crises in Venezuela; and sanctions in Zimbabwe. Everywhere, knowledge of the EU’s complexities depends very much on individuals’ degree of acquaintance with the bloc; civil society representatives and academics who have engaged with the EU display the greatest knowledge. The younger generation, freer of postcolonial legacies and tensions, emerged as having more positive views.
Postcolonialism can be connected to criticisms of double standards and hypocrisy—frequent accusations well known to European decisionmaking elites. But the disappointments over the way Europe has failed to support democratic actors abroad and fallen foul of its own human rights standards in the treatment of migrants and refugees run deep and are of consequence.
In a world that is acutely perceived in all seven countries as one of geopolitical rivalries, Europe stands a chance of casting itself as different, as nonpolarizing. This is where Europe’s soft power, however battered, still rests. Yet, by failing to live up to its standards—or by simply lacking an interest in perspectives from the Global South—Europe encourages transactionalism and self-interested pursuit. In Brazil and Indonesia, for instance, Europe’s stance on environmental standards is easily construed as a vehicle for globalism or trade dominance; in Ethiopia, Europe’s failure to engage has encouraged the government to turn to China for support in its military repression of the Tigray region. Ideological imperialism, double standards, and Eurocentric worldviews that are intolerant of other cultural contexts are accusations that sit side by side with more positive views.
Asking open-ended questions also meant that some of our hypotheses were not validated. In the Global South, Europe is not seen as a regulator and standard setter in the global economy or governance. The EU’s insistence on some environmental standards is seen as insincere and protectionist in two countries, having been manipulated by Brazil’s populist president and perceived as camouflage for vested economic interests in Indonesia. Europe’s role in the digital economy received virtually no attention; nor did its role as a model for regional integration.
Experience of the EU’s normative role is very much tied to the degree to which the union has a credible track record of engaging and supporting democratic actors in each of the countries examined. In the Philippines, for example, civil society actors lamented the intensification of government-to-government cooperation to the detriment of human rights objectives. Some of the EU’s values are also broadly contested by societies, not just by governments. For instance, opposition to the EU’s putative push for LGBTQ rights crosses the usually polarized political divides in Venezuela and is embraced by society at large in Niger. And while there is awareness of Europe’s political plights, there is little interest in them. In Zimbabwe, Brexit is even seen as an opportunity for a clean slate with the EU. Europe’s greatest stains lie in its treatment of refugees and migrants and its failures to effectively support democracy and human rights.
Expectations of future relations with the EU vary across countries and issues. Requests for the EU to embrace a deeper understanding of societal dynamics rather than focus on relations with governments alone are a common thread. The landscape of actors who work in the Global South on areas where the EU can have some influence—human rights and democracy, climate change, peace building and mediation—includes local communities, civil society organizations, and local leaders. But EU engagement with them is haphazard and subordinate to diplomatic relations between governments, sometimes making the union vulnerable to instrumentalization by autocratic leaders and subject to accusations of double standards. Likewise, health, culture, and education are areas where a greater EU presence is demanded.
In a context of sharpened geopolitical confrontation in fragile parts of the world, well-informed and appropriately leveraged EU soft power can offer alternative prospects for more diversified relations. Viewing the world through the eyes of the Global South could serve Europe’s future well.
Carnegie Europe is grateful to OSEPI for its support of this project.
1 “Flash Eurobarometer 450: Future of Europe—Views from Outside the EU,” European Commission Directorate-General for Communication, August 1, 2017, http://data.europa.eu/euodp/en/data/dataset/S2141_450_ENG.
2 Two exhaustive volumes among many case studies are Sonia Lucarelli and Lorenzo Fioramonti, eds., External Perceptions of the European Union as a Global Actor (Abingdon: Routledge, 2011) and Natalia Chaban and Martin Holland (eds.), Shaping the EU Global Strategy: Partners and Perceptions (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).