The EU’s Interests Today Require Stronger Ties With the Global South

In a June 2022 interview, Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar stated “Somewhere Europe has to grow out of the mindset that Europe’s problems are the world’s problems, but the world’s problems are not Europe’s problems”, when discussing the war in Ukraine. Much could be said in response, for instance reminding the fact that the EU is the biggest donor of development aid globally with over 75 billion Euros yearly, and to underline that India is no stranger to territorial challenges – from China.

Nevertheless, Jaishankar’s statement should not be overlooked. Despite the EU’s development cooperation, European public interest towards Asia has previously been rather limited to China. For example, India’s border problems with China have received little attention in Europe. The minister was calling for reciprocity.

India hosted the most recent G20 foreign ministers’ meeting on 1-2 March, covering topics such as green development, climate finance and multilateralism in the 21st century, among others. In the end, the G20 meeting ended without consensus over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as Moscow and Beijing refused to endorse the closing statement condemning the war, leaving only 18 signatories.

Western nations were successful in presenting a united front on the War in Ukraine during the G20 meeting, which became the de facto dominant theme on the sidelines of the summit. At the political level, the war’s frontlines now extend beyond Europe.

The war in Ukraine has led to a surge in the European interest towards Asia, especially India. Not only for political and foreign policy experts, but also for European businesses and a wide audience for whom it has become clear that events in Asia can have a very rapid and very real impact on European livelihoods.

The war in Ukraine has revealed doubts about China’s reliability as a source of raw materials and as a starting point for many European supply chains. If there were a conflict or all-out war over Taiwan, independently of whether EU members would participate in possible sanctions or not, global supply chains and the wider global economy would be severely impacted.

As a result, Europeans are searching for alternative business options, and many eyes are on India, the current chair of the G20. India is aiming for a growth rate of 6.5% in the upcoming year and is managing the digital transition of its economy very successfully. The example of India’s digital revolution may become a model to be potentially applied in Africa. Optimism surrounding the economy, which seems to have disappeared in the EU, at least temporarily, is very much alive in India today – as in many countries of the Global South.

But Asia is not the only continent where development is speeding up rapidly, despite the challenges. Africa, once considered a lost continent, is enjoying rapid growth, and a new middle class is emerging. China has been investing in Africa intensively for decades and only now is the West waking up. The United States is actively reflecting on its strategies to counter the Chinese surge for raw materials. Unfortunately, EU actors have some catching up to do in this area.

Beyond Africa, Europeans have viewed Latin America as a natural ally for historical, cultural and linguistic reasons. Unfortunately, this has not led to constantly strengthening relations but rather to complacency, despite the efforts of Spain and Portugal to remind the rest of Europe about the importance of Latin America. Again, China has increased its presence in Latin America massively, while the non-ratification of the EU-Mercosur trade deal is becoming an embarrassment for Europeans.

Despite positive developments in the Global South, many problems remain. The COVID-19 epidemic took a heavier toll there than in the West, since the Global South had fewer possibilities to mitigate the economic impact by taking on debt, as the West did. Millions of people fell back into poverty or lost their jobs. Measured by sustainable development goals, the planet suffered a setback of a couple of years. Thus, one can see why the economic opportunities offered by China are attractive to many developing nations.

The EU needs to once again prioritise global trade deals, including the ones currently being negotiated with India, Indonesia and the Philippines. It is evident that Europe cannot repeat the mistakes it made with China on trade with other global players. Global trade deals now carry political importance, which was not always the case some years ago.

Making the EU a global player is not only about complex trade deals, negotiations over UN resolutions and investments. Increasing the visibility and understanding of political developments in the Global South, and developing a presence and contacts are the starting points of being politically impactful. Individual politicians and organisations can play an important role.

The challenge for the EU is that globally, Europe is still seen largely through its member states. To counter that, EU member states must coordinate their global actions better. Even if done outside the EU framework, French president Macron’s proposal for a joint visit with chancellor Scholz to China was an example of a more effective approach. However, it was opposed by the German chancellor at that time.

The EU and its politicians have a long list of challenges; domestic and European-level economic problems, the war in Ukraine and the challenges within its eastern and southern neighbours. Crucial as these issues are, it is increasingly clear that to have that “global role” and to secure European political and economic interests, Europe needs to be globally as active as the US, China and even Russia. And as a result, Europe needs to be able to pick a side – and increasingly to be able to take a position on the World’s problems.