MONTH INTERVIEW – Ambassador Rubens Barbosa: Agreement between Mercosur and EU is more complicated without Amazon’s preservation

Photo: Date: 08.31.2007 Place: Sao Paulo / SP Costumer: FIESP / Revista da Industria Subject: Former Brazilian Ambassador in the United States of America,Rubens Barbosa. Photo: Julio Bittencourt/Revista da Indústria Assistent: Vitor Salgado

For Ambassador Rubens Barbosa, environmental policy needs to be corrected and Brazil has to assume the protagonism.

By Eduardo Geraque

The current efforts, as they could not be different, should be all aimed to the pandemic combat caused by the coronavirus. However, in the second half, pursuant the Ambassador Rubens Barbosa’s evaluation, which represented Brazil in London (1994 to 1999), and in Washington (1999 to 2004), the environmental matter will become strong in the international discussion. Mainly inside the probable parliament approval process, such as the European as by the Mercosur, of the agreement that still shall be signed between both commercial blocks. Without changes in the environmental policy in progress in the Amazon, for example, the parliamentarians of the various European countries will hardly ratify the agreement, as Ambassador Barbosa says in this interview for the Escolhas Institute.

The Chairman of both the Institute of International Relations and Foreign Trade (Irice) and the Brazilian Wheat Industry Association (Abitrigo) assess how the Brazilian agribusiness shall behave after the current crisis and, in special, how the polarization between the United States and China will look like in this new global scenario. Pursuant Barbosa, if the multilateral institutions survive, they must get a new appearance.

In the episode #6 of the podcast Escolhas no Ar, the Ambassador Rubens Barbosa talks a little more about the world that will emerge after coronavirus pandemic. For him, “ONU will need to be reinvented and the environmental debate will emerge with all the strength.” Click here.


Escolhas Institute – Doesn’t the environment of political polarization that Brazil is experiencing hinder deeper discussions on relevant issues both internally and externally?

Ambassador Rubens Barbosa – The polarization in Brazil has started about 10 or 15 years ago, founded in the idea of us against them, and goes on with a too strong ideological base. Among the themes that we are going to discuss, such as the environmental matter and the agribusiness, that polarization will endure. But my expectation is that we have some particularly important dates coming that will have to receive a different treatment by the Brazilian society. One of them, indeed, is the signature of the agreement between the Mercosur and the European Union that must occur, let us say so, by the half of the year. After this signature, the process of the agreement ratification will start, pursuant the Europeans Parliaments. Since the October 2019 elections in Europe, the green party has been the scales in several European parliaments. It will be hard to approve this agreement within the reality that we experience today in Brazil in relation to the deforestation, mining and illegal land occupation.

Escolhas – So, is the commercial agreement in risk?

Rubens Barbosa – I am moderately optimistic. The government will have to make a course correction with some speed in order to start giving answers to the parliaments that will approve the agreement. The interests are very big, and everybody will be fighting for the approval. The Brazilian government will need to make gestures because they will be charged by the global public opinion.  Certain policies will have to be corrected, like the question of the monitoring [of the deforestation]. The matter of climate change, the issues and the carbon credits will also enter in the discussion. They will have to be better executed.

Escolhas – You talked about dates. All the discussion will be coincident with the 2020 presidential campaign here in Brazil. Will that be good or bad for the agreement’s approval in the National Congress?

Rubens Barbosa – The debate about the agreement here, in Brazil, that very few people are giving attention by now, must begin from the end of this year. This will happen when the pressure groups of the Brazilian society, – and in a democracy, these pressure groups act their roles in a legal way for the approval of behavior policies –, mainly those linked to the Agribusiness, which are too much influent in the Congress and in the Executive, will have influence. The decisions will be issued and decided by the Brazilian society, inside the Congress and of the Executive. In my opinion, this is a discussion that will start in 2022. The agreement will not be approved before 2022, the presidential election year. These agreement ingredients with the EU will be very present in the election debate, what is not little thing. The environmental question will be on the discussion table of the candidates for the succession in 2022. We will have to take part. This is not only a question of the environmentalists and of the NGOs. This surrounds the Brazilian commercial interests, the question of the foreign perception about the country and evolves the loans, if we want to review this subject of the Amazonia Fund with Norway and with Germany.

Escolhas – In this question of the agreement approval by the European Parliaments, up to which point the today’s foreign perception about Brazil will charge?

Rubens Barbosa – The ones that are closely following this subject, know the grade of Brazil’s deterioration of the foreign perception. It is something that has already happened in the past. On the 1960s and 1970s decades, during the military government time, we had the same problem, for the same reasons we have nowadays: environment and human rights. But the punishment was different. It was limited to the political field. There were criticisms to the government and to Brazil for not complying with environmental and human rights protection rules.  Now it is different, more than 50 years passed the situation changed. First, a particularly important persona appeared, that there had not been before with the strength he has today.  His worry with the consumers is too big and the defense measures are not dealt with. They are not from UN and neither belong to international treaties, but they are informally done by the private sector. You cannot avoid. People will only buy one specific product if it has an environmental seal.

In second place, the environmental policies’ influence over the trade deals is something new, it also did not exist before. Such as in the agreement with the EU as with Canada, that we are also concluding, there will also have a chapter about the environmental subject. From now on, all commercial agreements will have, more and more, rules that are linked to commerce, but that are not commercial. Those factors will have to be perceived by the governments and not only here, in Brazil. All countries in development will face that problem. If we want to export to Europe or to Asia that needs to be considered. Even China needs to walk in this direction.  Currently, it is having an environmental concern that it did not have four or five years ago. If it wants to play an important role in the international organizations, in my opinion, in two or three years from now, she will start defending the same things that the world is defending today. Even the import of products that have to do with health and food.

Escolhas – About Amazonia, still in relation to the international context, is it also an important attention point?

Rubens Barbosa – After the pandemic ends, the environmental matter will enter with strength.  Amazonia will be especially important because it is a global attention focus. You may like this or not, but this is a fact. Brazil, some time ago, was one of the leaders of the international negotiations. We will have to return to the protagonism that we have lost since the beginning of last year. We must find ways to respond to that too much negative perception that exists today outside relating to Brazil. Because of this crisis of public health that we are living and, also due to the environment. The end of the coronavirus will coincide with the problem of the forest fires between the end of the year and the beginning of the next year. Since August or September, this is a problem that will start to call the people’s attention again. Brazil needs to monitor and protect the Amazonia and to develop concrete programs of containment of these abuses related to the deforestation and illegal exploitation. Allied to this, the issue of biodiversity has to be discussed by governments and companies. As the study done by Escolhas Institute about the Amazonia region (1), the richness and the diversity it has to become policies of the federal, state and municipal governments in order that the fish farming and digital transformation generate jobs and income for the local population..

In a meeting [on the last May 4] with the Federal Government, with the vice-president Hamilton Mourão that coordinates the Amazonia Counsel, we passed to him two ideas. The elaboration of a survey, through Irice, the institute I am the Chairman, of all the international commitments of Brazil that are included in the chapter of sustainable development of the agreement between Mercosur and the European Community in order to discover which is the grade of accomplishment of these commitments. We need to have an independent non-official document, to defend the Brazilian interests when questions appear about some determined matter. We will have one correct and complete survey of all the commitments that Brazil had assumed. The second idea also presented is, exactly, the work done by the Escolhas Institute about the Amazonia’s biodiversity. The study presents solid designs that can be developed by the government.

Escolhas – You talked rapidly about China. What will this rivalry between the Asian country and the United States look like in this post-pandemic world?

Rubens Barbosa – This is the 21 century’s rivalry. That dispute, that discord, came to stay. It is not just a commercial prevalent fight. On the last century, we had an enormous rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. Now we are going to have that one, with other tones. Unlike the Cold War, we are seeing a rivalry over the emergence of a new superpower and the containment of this by the only current global superpower, which is the United States. It started in the commercial area, overflowed for the technology area, and now we are seeing the third friction area, in the pandemic question. As is came to stay, we need to follow how the international relations will go away between both superpowers. There is no more the threaten of an atomic war, but the fight, by China, to arise to the superpower category. And the United States trying to restrain that. What is going to happen internally in the United States, because of this year elections, will influence too much all the process.  Trump decided to take off the United States of the global prominence, isolating itself, however without giving space to China, itself. Whether another President is elected that not Trump, the relation with the rest of the world will be different. An attitude of higher cooperation and of strengthen of multilateral organisms may be developed. The rivalry with China, independently of the President that will assume, will continue because the American society is not prepared to accept China’s risen.

Escolhas – We have seen, during the pandemic, the President Trump in conflict with the WHO. Will these multilateral organizations get strengthen with the crisis?

Rubens Barbosa – We cannot have a definitive position, but everything that happens now with those multilateral institutions is different from what happened after the war. All these multilateral institutions that we have today are the result of a very great influence of the United States in Bretton Woods [a conference attended in the United States in 1944 during the Second War that established commercial and financial rules between the mainly world nations of that epoch]. The United Nations, the World Bank, the Monetary Fund, and later the other regional institutions, like the IDB, were off because of the strong American leadership. Even later, entered the WTO and the WHO. Today is different. We have this system assembled, but with an increasing emptying, since, inclusive, of the position of the most important power of the world, the United States. They emptied the WTO and are now emptying the WHO. The United States do not give prestige to international agreements such as the Paris Agreement. Because of that, depending on the United States elections’ result, it is possible to occur a return of the American interest in giving prestige to those multilateral organizations. But they will come, if such happens, with a new appearance.

In my point of view, the multilateral organizations will not remain as they are today. Those that remain will present a new shape. What happened with the WTO in the last years, that is particularly important to Brazil inclusive, is that it lost strength by the manner as the institution decision process is developed. It is impossible you have a common understanding among hundreds of countries. It does not exist more. For this reason, is that the trade deals started to be done out of the WTO, causing the emptying of the organization. In addition, new topics have become important in multilateral trade negotiations. The environmental policy became to be part of the commercial negotiations, even out of the WTO. Those organizations, whether they survive, will evolve in a new shape. Inclusive with a stronger participation of China. One of Trump’s criticisms about WHO now is that there was too much influence from China. In my opinion, they will change, indeed, but it is still difficult to forecast how this process will be unwound.

Escolhas – Talking about evolution, in the specific case of agribusiness, must the countries be closed more after the pandemic? Will be that a new world order?

Rubens Barbosa – In some areas there will effectively have a movement to care about the social interests. The global productive chain, for example, is too much concentrated in China. There is no doubt that one deconcentration will happen. Now, I do not think there will be a dramatic deconcentration in the globalization movement that we are seeing. In a first moment, there may have corrections, here and there, and some restrictive measures, besides to incentives to the local production, but that will not continue indefinitely.

In the agricultural area, there is no way for countries to close themselves because many do not produce. Japan and European Union will have to continue importing. It is difficult the world enters again in a cycle of imports’ substitution. There are no resources. In Brazil’s case, the government, at least until now, has a liberal policy for the economy, which would not be able to replace imports, except in some specific segments, for the sake of national security. In the health matter, for example, in the companies that are adjusting to produce masks, respirators and that need the latest technologies to produce these items. I do not believe in a move like this in the whole economy.

The Brazilian agribusiness is the most peaceful part, within this situation that we are experiencing. The services, the industry and the government are all very much affected, but the agro-industry has created one own space and goes on increasing its participation. The exports will continue to increase, and our dependence of the Chinese market will continue. Food is an essential good. I do not see much difficulty for Brazil in not only keeping its position but increasing the foreign market. And, also inside. People will continue to eat. I see the agribusiness in a very positive manner in the next months and years.

Escolhas – Should health barriers also be greater from now on?

Rubens Barbosa – At this point we enter again in the discussion about the agreement with the EU. If the pandemic will not delay the agreement signature, all the commitments that Brazil assumed in environment, still evolving the subject of slaving work, will be incorporated with the European Community, even without talking of the precaution matter, another criterion that the European Union uses too much, and that is too vague, but can be always invoked in case of occurring some commitment for the health, for the economy or for the work. After the coronavirus, the phytosanitary and environmental concerns will reappear with great force, which may even generate protectionism in some countries against Brazil, if it is not fully complying with the rules. Thus, it is important, mainly in the environmental matter, to make some correction not only of rhetoric, but also in the policy, so that nothing may be used against Brazil and prejudice placing our products abroad.

(1) A new economy for Amazonas: Free Zone of Manaus and Bioeconomy

Note: An article published in the Financial Times on May 4 reports that “France and the Netherlands have made a joint call for stricter application of environmental and labor standards in EU trade agreements, saying the bloc needs to police the activities of countries with preferential access to their market. Both made propositions urging that the EU be prepared to impose higher tariffs against countries that fail to respect sustainable development commitments”.