Brazil’s president is touring the Iberian peninsula in an attempt to boost ties with the EU, but his persistent claims that both Russia and Ukraine are responsible for the ongoing war highlight the bloc’s difficulty in winning over the global south.
During his stay in Portugal, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said that Ukraine “does not want to stop” the war and insisted peace talks should begin, even though Moscow continues its missile attacks on civilian targets and Russian troops are still occupying parts of Ukraine.
Lula’s rhetoric on the war, which the US earlier condemned as “parroting Russian and Chinese propaganda”, has underscored the challenge facing the EU and its allies at it struggles to build a global coalition seeking to hold Russia accountable for its invasion of Ukraine, and exposed its lack of political influence over swaths of the non-western world.
While Lula made clear that he condemned the invasion of a sovereign state, he did not disavow comments made last week in the United Arab Emirates that Russia and Ukraine bore joint responsibility and that the US and EU were “contributing” to the conflict.
“We are not in favour of war. We want peace,” Lula said in Lisbon on Saturday alongside Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, Portugal’s president. In the case of the ongoing conflict, Lula added: “Russia does not want to stop and Ukraine does not want to stop. And if you don’t talk about peace, you are contributing to war.”
He is due to travel on to Spain on Tuesday, a country that will take over the rotating EU presidency in July. This is Lula’s first European trip since taking office in January and comes on the heels of visits to China and the US. A senior diplomat said that Lula’s trip to the Iberian peninsula was about demonstrating that the EU was a “key priority” for Latin America’s largest country.
The global response to the war in Ukraine has provided a startling wake-up call to EU diplomats who have failed to convince major nations in Latin America, Africa and south-east Asia to oppose Moscow’s invasion.
EU officials have admitted that they have struggled to challenge Russian and Chinese rhetoric across the developing world, which portrays the invasion of Ukraine as an act of self-defence by Russia and claims unjustified western sanctions have exacerbated global inflation, food supply concerns and geopolitical instability.
While Brazil has voted in the UN to condemn the violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and Russia’s sham annexation of parts of its territory, it has not joined western sanctions against Moscow or agreed to supply arms to Ukraine.
“I understand Europe’s position, I understand the position of Romania, which has a 600km border with Ukraine, but I want people to understand Brazil’s position,” Lula told reporters in Lisbon. “Brazil does not want to participate in the war, Brazil wants to find a group of people who are willing to spend a little time talking with all the people who are willing to make peace.”
EU officials have privately sought to downplay the significance of Lula’s remarks that both Russia and Ukraine bear responsibility for the conflict, pointing out that experienced politicians such as the 77-year-old will always adapt their rhetoric to their audience to seek geopolitical advantages.
But they have added to the sense of disconnect ahead of a summit of EU, Latin American and Caribbean countries in Brussels this July, where the 27-member bloc is seeking to reverse years of lacklustre engagement with the region.
The EU has not held a summit with the region for eight years, something that a senior Brussels official said had been a mistake.
“There are many reasons that could explain that anomaly, but one of them is obviously the fact that it was perceived that it wasn’t sufficiently important,” the official admitted.
“We have not been able to communicate effectively to what extent our commitment to the region was solid,” they added. “now this is going to change from an institutional point of view.”
EU-Brazilian relations are rocky after a row over environmental rules last month held up a trade agreement with four of South America’s largest economies. “Quite a large number” of Latin American and Caribbean nations “feel a bit abandoned by Europe in recent years,” said a second EU official. “We need to fix that.”
Francisco Seixas da Costa, a former Portuguese deputy foreign minister and ambassador to Brazil, said that Lula’s pronouncements on Ukraine were consistent with his country’s longstanding desire “to be seen as an actor on the international stage, as an actor of the global south”. Brazil traditionally maintains a policy of neutrality, which in this case was becoming problematic, he said.
“He didn’t realise it was impossible to maintain the idea of being neutral. Being neutral means not being on the side of the victim,” Seixas da Costa said. “That is a mistake.”
During the press conference in Lisbon marked by its friendly tone and references to Brazil and Portugal, its former colonial power, as “brotherly nations”, de Sousa stressed that Brazil had always voted on Ukraine’s side at the UN since the war began, but recognised that “the Portuguese position is different from Brazil’s”.
“The war should never have started. Russia should not have invaded. But the fact is it happened,” Lula added. “Instead of now choosing a side, I want to choose a third way, which is peace building.”