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The BRICS Conundrum in a World in Flames: Time for the EU to Rise to the Challenge?

Hamas’ sudden and brutal incursion in Israel has shown yet again that there is no one in the driving seat of global affairs. And the flashpoints will only increase until China starts shouldering responsibility beyond the narratives and image it tries to build. The world has seen before how this would end, yet there are very few signs, that things would go down differently this time around.

With the war in Ukraine, the Kremlin has nudged China to accelerate its push to further upend the established global order. The BRICS and its expansion have been the latest power show from Beijing and Moscow meant to denounce Western governance and development organizations, as unfit for the job. While they have been basking in global media glory and happy at the success of their propaganda messaging against the West, China and the new BRICS have provided little to no practical ideas on how they would govern global issues better. At the same time, the European Union (and its neighbourhoods) appears to be the most vulnerable to Moscow and Beijing’s relentless media pounding, as it lacks the geopolitical instruments and instincts to protect its values of liberal freedoms and rule-of-law globally.

As the Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, the Kremlin invigorated its offensive to sway countries against the EU, focusing in particular on the Western Balkans, the Middle East, and Africa. Adding China’s economic weight behind the Kremlin, dramatically changed the EU’s global geopolitical position. Unless the EU steps up its efforts to protect its development model from authoritarian encroachment, it will face repeated, mounting challenges. This would be bad for the EU and for the world, and worst for the most fragile countries across the globe.

The recent China-driven expansion of the BRICS group has re-kindled discussions about its impact on the international balance of power. BRICS leaders welcomed Iran, Argentina, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Ethiopia, and Egypt, with 40 other states expressing interest injoining. A seemingly impressive verdict on the existing governance of global affairs. However, the lack of any substantive propositions, for example for addressingglobal development challenges, such as poverty, climate change, and good governance, makes the BRICS expansion another act of transactional diplomacy, of looking for ways to increase the economic clout of regimes, which in many cases can hardly be seen as anything else than focused on preserving their authoritarian power. The presence at the BRICS’ expansion announcement of the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who has been criticized as being too close to the Kremlin, underscored China’s conflicting ambitions to present an alternative world order while calling for reforms in global institutions like the UN Security Council, IMF, and the World Bank.

The lack of an overarching development agenda makes BRICS prone to becoming a platform for geopolitical grandstanding. With an increasingly formalised and institutionalised framework of hosting regular summits and establishing collective bodies, the group normalises forms of state capitalism and regimes which are notorious for state capture and no respect for the rule of law. BRICS newcomers Saudi Arabia and Iran, for example, have no positive track record in human rights protection or welfare principles making the alliance prone to facilitate and legitimise the flow of state-driven, politically laden capital across the states and to vulnerable economies, precisely the sins, of which BRICS leaders have accused the EU. This is already visible in Africa. China remains seen locally as an economic actor significantly more susceptible to using corruption as a tool when doing business (55.2% of Africans surveyed perceive China as benefitting from corruption).

BRICS’ stance to the EU (and G-7) sanctions on Moscow against its war in Ukraine have provided the strongest evidence yet, that the group is not ready to take responsibility for global affairs based on enforcing clear principles and values, as it has claimed it would. As a result, they have exacerbated splits in the developing world more widely, hardly useful for global development efforts – on the one hand, they have provided a platform for a coalition of the sanctioned, while on the other, economic hurdles have driven states to call for, yet not propose action for peace such as over the end of the grain deal. Thus, the BRICS yet again displayed collective ambiguity, practising non-alignment and benefiting economically whenever possible, taking advantage of Russia’s growing isolation from the West. Trade between India and Russia is reaching near-historic levels and trade with China in the first five months of 2023 is $93.8 billion, a 41 per cent increase over the same period in 2022. This looks like a zero-sum strategy, no matter the means, as long as they serve perceived geopolitical gains. Such tactics are likely to continue displacing EU (and Western) businesses and aid with much more state- and corruption-driven resources, increasing the likelihood of potential geopolitical problems and clashes in the future, without anyone claiming responsibility like in the case of Hamas’ incursion in Israel.

Nonetheless, the EU remains one of the world’s top development aid actors. While the BRICS enlargement signifies that the Global South is looking for alternatives to its traditional European companions, unmatched financial aid by the EU-27 amounting to over 70 billion dollars in 2021 can hardly be ignored. So far, European democracies have been too quick to re-lapse into complacent isolation in the face of the authoritarian threat. The increasing string of violence along its borders should serve to keep minds in Europe focused on utilizing every hard and soft power tool to reassert the EU’s united vision of the world based on its core principles of respect for human dignity, democracy, transparency, accountability, and rule of law. It is high time for the EU to reinvigorate its democracy-building efforts and evoke that none of the forming alternative alliances offers a more sustainable future and equitable global development. Engaging with the developing world, and in particular with the regions in its immediate neighbourhood, through the Global Gateway (a €300 billion initiative) if done correctly can push back against the global authoritarian threat, which thus far has only led to bloodshed in Europe’s backyard. Member states and Brussels leaders must rise to the challenge or risk becoming increasingly obsolete. The European elections in 2024 will provide an important sign, of which road they are taking.

Figure: Official Foreign Development Aid of the US, China and the EU-27

Source: This graph combines data from Eurostat (sourced from the OECD) for the European Union, the U.S. Foreign Assistance By Agency for the US, where Congress allocates funding across over 20 accounts, and the China Africa Research Initiative. All EU data was converted from euros to dollars.


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