-The EU is plotting how to win friends and influence people — in other countries.
Earlier this week, EU officials circulated a confidential briefing, obtained by POLITICO, that details several individualized plans to win back — or not lose — four key “priority countries” that sit on the edge of the Western-led alliance trying to isolate Russia, arm Ukraine and constrain China.
The countries: Brazil, Chile, Nigeria and Kazakhstan.
The document indicates where — and how — the EU thinks it can make progress in each one. There is the expected invocation of possible trade agreements, but the document goes well beyond that, suggesting tailored offers the EU can make on energy, migration, economic development or security coordination. The focus is distinctly on carrots, not sticks
The unstated goal: To get more friends and build a next-generation economy without cozying up to autocrats. Indeed, Russia and China loom over the entire document, with several anxious mentions of the countries’ global influence or destabilizing behavior.
“We find ourselves in a competitive geopolitical environment: not only a battle of narratives but also a battle of offers,” the document argues. “We need to improve our offer and enhance our relationship with them.”
EU foreign affairs ministers are set to discuss the strategy at a meeting Monday in Luxembourg.
It is, said one senior EU official, “a huge reorientation … of the way we do foreign policy — not of our foreign policy, of course, but the way we do it.”
The memo shows how, fourteen months into the Ukraine war, the EU is still grappling with how to expand its influence. While the West’s core coalition has remained remarkably solid on the war, officials have struggled to make broader inroads in Latin America, Africa and Asia — especially in the face of the billions China is spreading around.
“It is not rocket science, but it’s good that it’s now being brought together into a somewhat coherent strategy,” one diplomat said. The “ultimate aim,” the diplomat added, “would be to somehow propose an alternative that could be more attractive than what China offers.”
In many ways, it’s easy to see why the four countries made the list.
Each represents a potential EU toehold in regions where Western allies are vying for influence (and resources) with Russia and China. Brazil and Chile are in raw materials-rich Latin America; Nigeria is an economic powerhouse in West Africa; Kazakhstan holds oil and gas in Central Asia.
These factors are made explicit in a two-by-two grid for each country that lists the “EU’s interests” in the country, the country’s “interests,” and then the “challenges” and “opportunities.”
Latin America tops the list, with Brazil and Chile listed first.
“There is a firm conviction amongst our leaders,” said a second senior EU official, “that Latin America, the Caribbean is a key.” The region, the official added, broadly shares “our democratic principles” and “the belief that you have to uphold the multilateral system.”
In Brazil, the EU sees an opening with the country’s recent switch from far-right nationalist Jair Bolsonaro to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a veteran Latin American leftist.
“The current government shows signs of willingness to step up cooperation,” a summary reads.
Brazil wants to “be recognized and treated as a global actor,” the document later adds, and is seeking to “improve EU market access for agricultural products.” Lula has signaled this, welcoming German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to Brazil in January. But the Scholz visit also showed the “challenges” the EU feels it faces in the country, when Lula bluntly rebuffed Germany’s plea that Brazil supports Kyiv with weapons and ammunition.
“If one doesn’t want to, two can’t fight,” Lula told reporters, implying Ukraine also played a role in Russia’s invasion.
The document frets that the EU “is concerned” about this stance, as well as about Brazil’s “lack of delivery on climate, environment, and sanitary approval of EU products.” It also expresses unease about “China’s footprint” in Brazil’s bid to join an international World Trade Organization agreement.
The way in for the EU, it argues, starts with trade. The bloc is trying to revive the long-stalled Mercosur trade deal with South American countries and views Brazil as vital to the effort. The memo notes that Brazil is in favor of the agreement and, under Lula, wants to be “recognized and treated as a global actor.”
And, the memo says, Brazil doesn’t want to rely on Russia and Belarus for its fertilizer — another opening for the EU. It pushes the EU to focus on “green and digital transitions” with Lula.
Moving south, the EU’s next target is Chile, which also recently elected a left-wing leader in Gabriel Boric. While the document expresses concerns that “Chile’s far-left questions trade agreements,” it sees Chile as an ally on “green policies” and as a “voice of strong support on Ukraine.”
And, it adds, Chile is “interested in EU welfare state model” — seemingly a reference to the country’s ongoing attempts to draft a new constitution.
Yet China is also reaching into the country, it says, urging the EU to “reduce China’s growing influence in Chile” and arguing Chile wants to bond with the EU “as an alternative to the US-China dilemma.”
To counter this, the memo suggests finalizing a tariff-slashing, EU-Chile economic agreement, which negotiators polished off last December but still needs to be legally scrutinized and translated before it can be ratified. Chile, the document says, has expressed “annoyance at the long and complex internal EU procedures” delaying the agreement.
Asia and Africa, as well
Over in Asia, the document hones in on Kazakhstan, with a particular emphasis on the spillover effect of EU sanctions in the country.
A major EU interest in Kazakhstan, it says, is to “ensure there is no circumvention of international sanctions” on Russia via the country. And Kazakhstan, for its part, wants to avoid sending its crude oil through Russia and to “export more oil to the EU.”
The EU can help here, it argues, noting that the country actively wants more EU cooperation, more high-level visits from EU officials and even “Public EU support for its reform agenda.”
Kazakhstan’s goal, it argues: “Remain a reliable mediation platform between the East and the West.”
The document advises that Kazakhstan is seeking visa-free travel for its citizens, and suggests the EU could strike an EU-wide air service deal with the country.
Easing legal entrance into the EU is also a central point in the document’s section on Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy.
The memo says Nigeria perceives the EU “as a closed space with strict visa policies” that lacks “openness on legal migration.” Nigeria is seeking “more legal migration opportunities” and looser visa rules. Plus, it notes, Nigeria’s recently elected new government allows for “a new engagement.”
Yet, predictably, the document says the EU’s interests in Nigeria are “particularly on returns and readmission,” and less on legal migration.
So instead, it pushes officials to combine outreach on the humanitarian and migration front with building economic contacts in areas like energy investments, where Nigeria is seeking EU cash. The two sides, it notes, are also working on a readmission agreement for migrants and on an energy pact that could possibly come to fruition “in the coming months.”
As a third EU official argued, the EU has to start merging all these lanes when wooing others.
“In this era of geo-economics the EU will have to be less naïve and more concerned with economic security,” the official said. “This will require a more strategic and combined use of all the panoply of tools available.”
It won’t be easy.
“This can only work if there is a mind shift and more collaborative ways of working,” the official added.