Skip to main content

The environment as a strategic priority in the European Union–Brazil partnership: is the EU behaving as a normative power or soft imperialist?


In 2007, Brazil entered the European Union’s (EU) list of strategic partners; a token of recognition of the place Brazil occupies in current global affairs. Although promoting bilateral environmental convergence is a stated priority, cooperation between the EU and Brazil in this policy field is largely under-researched, raising interesting questions as to whether the current state of play could support EU claims for the normative orientation of its external environmental policy. Through an analysis of partnership activities in the fields of deforestation and biofuels, we suggest that while normative intentions may be regarded as a motivating force, critically viewing EU foreign environmental policy through a ‘soft imperialism’ lens could offer a more holistic understanding of the current state of bilateral cooperation. While the normative power thesis can be substantiated with regard to deforestation, we argue that by erecting barriers to shield its domestic biofuels production, the EU is placing trade competitiveness and economic growth above its normative aspirations. Subsequently, the partial adoption of sustainable development as an EU norm leads to policy incoherence and contradictory actions.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. 1.

    Relevant examples would include the US rejection of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) or its withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol.

  2. 2.

    The meaning of these three terms is more or less similar. A civilian power employs soft power tools, such as diplomacy and the building of interdependence, rather than military confrontation (hard power). A normative power is one that attempts to diffuse/export the values and ideas on which it is founded upon to its surroundings.

  3. 3.

    See, e.g. the Tuna-Dolphin case (Bretherton and Vogler 2006).

  4. 4.

    The India, Brazil and South Africa group.

  5. 5.

    The Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa group. Formerly BRIC, it is now the BRICS club, following the accession of South Africa in 2011.

  6. 6.

    EU-Brazil annual summits have so far been held in Lisbon (2007), Rio de Janeiro (2008), Stockholm (2009), Brasilia (2010), Brussels (2011) and Brasilia (2013).

  7. 7.

    The first JAP was adopted during the second EU-Brazil Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 2008, while the second one, to last until 2014, was adopted during the summit in Brussels in November 2011.

  8. 8.

    South America’s leading trading block, comprising Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and (since July 2012) Venezuela.

  9. 9.

    Interview with official in DG Trade, October 2013.

  10. 10.

    As of September 2013, the Energy Dialogue is only in its fourth session, while the Environment Dialogue in its fifth.

  11. 11.

    This group consists of Brazil, South Africa, India and China. It first emerged just before the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference.

  12. 12.

    Interview with Brazilian diplomat #1 in Brussels, October 2011.

  13. 13.

    Interview with Brazilian diplomat #1 in Brussels, October 2011.

  14. 14.

    Interview with Brazilian diplomat #2 in Brussels, October 2013.

  15. 15.

    It should be noted that the UN climate regime is one of several channels through which the EU tries to tackle deforestation. The United Nations Forum on Forests offers another such channel, even though deliberations in this forum are unlikely to result in a multilateral agreement on trade in forest products due to fears among countries like Brazil of potential adverse consequences for their forest industries (Gulbrandsen 2012). Brazil has also refused to back the EU’s FLEGT (Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade) initiative, which seeks to control exports of illegally logged wood (Overdevest and Zeitlin 2012).

  16. 16.

    In the run-up to Durban, the EU slightly modified its position by acknowledging that credits from forestry projects could potentially be integrated into international carbon markets, but only if ‘subject to strict quantitative limits’ and ‘in light of experience gained and after thorough review’ (UNFCCC n.d.).

  17. 17.

    SUNLIBB (Sustainable Liquid Biofuels from Biomass Biorefining) is an example of such a project, aiming inter alia at combining European and Brazilian research strengths in order to open the way for cost-competitive first and second generation biofuels production (see:

  18. 18.

    To date, the project in Kenya has barely got off the ground due to disagreements between the EU and Brazil with respect to its sustainability. With regard to the project in Mozambique, the EU has again refrained from getting wholeheartedly involved due to food security concerns (Interviews with Brazilian diplomats in Brussels, October 2011 and October 2013, as well as with an EU official in the Delegation of the EU to Kenya in October 2013).

  19. 19.

    If a farmer grows biofuel feedstock on previously uncultivated land, this causes direct land use change. If the farmer uses existing agricultural land, the crop that was previously cultivated there will now be displaced and will have to be moved elsewhere, e.g. to forest land, thus causing iLUC in the process.

  20. 20.

    Besides greenhouse gas savings (currently 35 per cent, rising to 50 per cent in 2017), the EU’s sustainability criteria stipulate that biofuel feedstock is not to be derived from primary forests, lands with high biodiversity value, protected territories and carbon-rich areas.

  21. 21.


  22. 22.

    See Subsequent versions have been watered down, while the proposal is currently under discussion among the Commission, the European Parliament and the Member States. In September 2013, the European Parliament voted that the cap be raised to 6 per cent.

  23. 23.

     Interview with official from the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association (UNICA), April 2013.

  24. 24.

    According to a personal communication with an EU Commission official, the definition was expected during 2012. As of October 2013, it remains unknown when an intra-EU agreement will be finally reached.

  25. 25.

    Interview with EU official from DG Energy, October 2013.

  26. 26.

    Personal communications with Brazilian policy-makers and lobbyists during the Second International Conference on Lignocellulosic Ethanol (2ICLE) in Verona, Italy, 11–13 October 2011.

  27. 27.

    Interview with official from the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association (UNICA), April 2013.

  28. 28.

    In an interview with a diplomat in Brazil’s delegation to the EU in October 2013, it was noted that this still remains Brazil’s official stance, even though the EU has refused to enter into concrete negotiations.

  29. 29.

    We acknowledge here both the LUC impact of sugarcane ethanol and the diverse environmental externalities of monocrop plantations.

  30. 30.

    Interview with Brazilian diplomat #1 in Brussels, October 2011.

  31. 31.

    Personal communications with Brazilian policy-makers and lobbyists during the Second International Conference on Lignocellulosic Ethanol (2ICLE) in Verona, Italy, 11–13 October 2011.



African, Caribbean and Pacific


Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization


Agriculture, forestry and land use


EU–Asia Meeting


Brazil, South Africa, India and China


Brazilian Development Bank


British Petroleum


Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa


Common Agricultural Policy


Convention on Biological Diversity


Direct land use change


European Investment Bank


European Union


Free trade agreement


Framework Programme (for Research and Technological Development)


Group of 20


India, Brazil and South Africa


Indirect land use change


Joint action plan


Land use change


Mercosur–Europe Business Forum


Mercado Común del Sur


Non-governmental organization


Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation


Sustainable liquid biofuels from biomass biorefining


Total primary energy supply


UN Conference on Environment and Development (1992)


United Nations


World Summit on Sustainable Development (2002)


World Trade Organization


  1. Afionis, S. (2011). The European Union as a negotiator in the international climate change regime. International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics, 11(4), 341–360.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Afionis, S., & Bailey, I. (2012). Ever Closer Partnerships? European Union Relations with Rapidly Industrializing Countries on Climate Change. In I. Bailey & H. Compston (Eds.), Feeling the heat: The politics of climate policy in rapidly industrializing countries. Palgrave: Houndmills.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Afionis, S., & Stringer, L. C. (2012). European Union leadership in biofuels regulation: Europe as a normative power? Journal of Cleaner Production, 32, 114–123.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Armijo, L. E., & Burges, S. W. (2010). Brazil, the entrepreneurial and democratic BRIC. Polity, 42(1), 14–37.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Biofuels Digest (2011). BP aims to be world’s leader in biofuels, ups ante in Brazil. Accessed December 22, 2011.

  6. Björkdahl, A. (2008). Norm advocacy: A small state strategy to influence the EU. Journal of European Public Policy, 15(1), 135–154.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Boyd, E., Corbera, E., & Estrada, M. (2008). UNFCCC negotiations (pre-Kyoto to COP-9): What the process says about the politics of CDM-sinks. International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics, 8(2), 95–112.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Brazilian Mission to the European Union (2010a). Draft Consultation paper—definition highly biodiverse grasslands—Comments from Brazil. Accessed December 12, 2011.

  9. Brazilian Mission to the European Union (2010b). EC’s consultation on indirect land use change—Brazil’s comments. Accessed December 12, 2011.

  10. Bretherton, C., & Vogler, J. (2006). The European Union as a global actor. London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Chilosi, A. (2007). The European Union and its neighbours: “Everything but Institutions”? The European Journal of Comparative Economics, 4(1), 25–38.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Da Conceição-Heldt, E. (2011). Variation in EU member states’ preferences and the Commission’s discretion in the Doha round. Journal of European Public Policy, 18(3), 403–419.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. De Zutter, E. (2010). Normative power spotting: An ontological and methodological appraisal. Journal of European Public Policy, 17(8), 1106–1127.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Dimitrov, R. S. (2010). Inside UN climate change negotiations: The Copenhagen conference. Review of Policy Research, 27(6), 795–821.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Dimitrovova, B. (2012). Imperial re-bordering of Europe: The case of the European Neighbourhood Policy. Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 25(2), 249–267.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Doctor, M. (2007). Why bother with inter-regionalism? Negotiations for a European Union-Mercosur agreement. Journal of Common Market Studies, 45(2), 281–314.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. EIB (European Investment Bank) (2011). Brazil: EUR 500 million loan for climate change mitigation projects. Accessed October 13, 2011.

  18. ENDS Europe (2010). Climate negotiators close to deal on REDD, 7 December. Accessed January 13, 2012.

  19. European Commission (2001). Communication from the Commission on alternative fuels for road transport and on a set of measures to promote the use of biofuels, COM (2001) 547 final.

  20. European Commission (2007a). Brazil—Country Strategy Paper 2007–2013. Brussels, 14 May.

  21. European Commission (2007b). Communication from the Commission—Biofuels Progress Report, COM(2006) 845 final.

  22. European Commission (2009). Draft Consultation paper definition highly biodiverse grasslands. Accessed March 12, 2012.

  23. European Commission (2010). Report from the Commission on indirect land-use change related to biofuels and bioliquids, COM (2010) 811 final.

  24. European Council (2003). A European Security Strategy—A secure Europe in a better world. Brussels, 12 December.

  25. European Council (2011a). Nota Verbal. Brasilia, 9 November. DELBRA/DEV(2011)D/870-JEP.

  26. European Council (2011b). V European Union—Brazil Summit—Joint Statement. Brussels, 4 October.

  27. Falkner, R. (2005). American hegemony and the global environment. International Studies Review, 7(4), 585–599.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Falkner, R. (2007). The political economy of ‘normative power’ Europe: EU environmental leadership in international biotechnology regulation. Journal of European Public Policy, 14(4), 507–526.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Farrell, M. (2005). A triumph of realism over idealism? Cooperation between the European Union and Africa. Journal of European Integration, 27(3), 263–283.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. García, M. The European Union and Latin America: ‘Transformative power Europe’ versus the realities of economic interests. Cambridge Review of International Affairs. doi:10.1080/09557571.2011.647762.

  31. Giddens, A. (2009). The politics of climate change. Cambridge: Polity.

    Google Scholar 

  32. Goldemberg, J., & Guardabassi, P. (2009). Are biofuels a feasible option? Energy Policy, 37, 10–14.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Gulbrandsen, L. H. (2012). International forest politics: Intergovernmental failure, non-governmental success? In S. Andresen, E. Lerum, & G. Hønneland (Eds.), International environmental agreements: An introduction. London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  34. Haastrup, T. EU as Mentor? Promoting regionalism as external relations practice in EU–Africa Relations. Journal of European Integration. doi:10.1080/07036337.2012.744754.

  35. Hallding, K., Olsson, M., Atteridge, A., Vihma, A., Carson, M., & Román, M. (2011). Together alone: BASIC countries and the climate change conundrum. Copenhagen: Nordic Council of Ministers.

    Google Scholar 

  36. Hardacre, A. (2010). The rise and fall of interregionalism in EU external relations. Dordrecht: Republic of Letters Publishing.

    Google Scholar 

  37. Hardacre, A., & Smith, M. (2009). The EU and the diplomacy of complex interregionalism. The Hague Journal of Diplomacy, 4(2), 167–188.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Hettne, B., & Söderbaum, F. (2005). Civilian power or soft imperialism? The EU as a global actor and the role of interregionalism. European Foreign Affairs Review, 10(4), 535–552.

    Google Scholar 

  39. Hochstetler, K., & Viola, E. (2012). Brazil and the politics of climate change: Beyond the global commons. Environmental Politics, 21(5), 753–771.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Holzer, C., & Zhang, H. (2008). The potentials and limits of China—EU cooperation on climate change and energy security. Asia Europe Journal, 6(2), 217–227.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Hopewell, K. (2013). New protagonists in global economic governance: Brazilian agribusiness at the WTO. New Political Economy, 18(4), 603–623.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Hyde-Price, A. (2008). A ‘tragic actor’? A realist perspective on ‘ethical power Europe’. International Affairs, 84(1), 29–44.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. ICTSD (International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development) (2011). Mercosur-EU trade talks need to move forward: Official. Accessed November 1, 2011.

  44. IEA (International Energy Agency). (2011). CO2 emissions from fuel combustion—Highlights. Paris: IEA Publications.

    Google Scholar 

  45. Kelemen, D. R. (2010). Globalizing European Union environmental policy. Journal of European Public Policy, 17(3), 335–349.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Kieffer, G. (2011). An abundance of opportunities in Brazil. The Journal of the International Energy Agency, 1(1), 42–43.

    Google Scholar 

  47. Lightfoot, S., & Burchell, J. (2004). Green hope or greenwash? The actions of the European Union at the world summit on sustainable development. Global Environmental Change, 14(4), 337–344.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. Luff, P. & Whitfield, R. (2009). Enhancing cooperation, Report of the High-Level India-EU Dialogue. Action for a Global Climate Community, London, July. Accessed April 12, 2012.

  49. Manners, I. (2002). Normative power Europe: A contradiction in terms? Journal of Common Market Studies, 40(2), 235–258.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. Manners, I. (2008). The normative ethics of the European Union. International Affairs, 84(1), 45–60.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. Michaelowa, A. (1998). Climate policy and interest groups—a public choice analysis. Intereconomics, 33(6), 251–259.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  52. Motaal, D. A. (2008). The biofuels landscape: Is there a role for the WTO? Journal of World Trade, 42(1), 61–86.

    Google Scholar 

  53. Nitoiu, C. (2013). The narrative construction of the European Union in external relations. Perspectives on European Politics and Society, 14(2), 240–255.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  54. Noutcheva, G. (2009). Fake, partial and imposed compliance: The limits of the EU’s normative power in the Western Balkans. Journal of European Public Policy, 16(7), 1065–1084.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  55. Nye, J. S. (2004). Soft Power: The means to success in world politics. New York: PublicAffairs.

    Google Scholar 

  56. Oberthür, S. (2009). The role of the EU in global environmental and climate governance. In M. Telò (Ed.), The European Union and global governance. London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  57. Okereke, C., & Dooley, K. (2010). Principles of justice in proposals and policy approaches to avoided deforestation: Towards a post-Kyoto climate agreement. Global Environmental Change, 20(1), 82–95.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  58. Overdevest, C., & Zeitlin, J. (2012). Assembling an experimentalist regime: Transnational governance interactions in the forest sector. Regulation & Governance,. doi:10.1111/j.1748-5991.2012.01133.x.

    Google Scholar 

  59. Paterson, M. (1996). Global warming and global politics. London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  60. Poletti, A. (2010). Drowning protection in the multilateral bath: WTO judicialisation and European Agriculture in the Doha round. British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 12(4), 615–633.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  61. Potvin, C., & Bovarnick, A. (2008). Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries: Key actors, negotiations and actions. Carbon & Climate Law Review, 3, 264–272.

    Google Scholar 

  62. Sbragia, A. (2010). The EU, the US, and trade policy: Competitive interdependence in the management of globalization. Journal of European Public Policy, 17(3), 368–382.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  63. Scott, D. (2009). Environmental issues as a ‘strategic’ key in EU–China relations. Asia Europe Journal, 7(2), 211–224.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  64. Shell (2011). Shell and Cosan: Fuelling a lower-carbon future with biofuels. Accessed December 9, 2011.

  65. Söderbaum, F. (2007). African Regionalism and EU-African Interregionalism. In M. Telò (Ed.), European Union and new regionalism. Surrey: Ashgate.

    Google Scholar 

  66. Souza, R. R., Schaeffer, R., & Meira, I. (2011). Can new legislation in importing countries represent new barriers to the development of an international ethanol market? Energy Policy, 39, 3154–3162.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  67. Taylor, P. (2008). The End of European integration: Anti-Europeanism examined. London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  68. Tollefson, J. (2013). A light in the forest: Brazil’s fight to save the amazon and climate-change diplomacy. Foreign Affairs, 92(2), 141–151.

    Google Scholar 

  69. Trade, D. G. (2009). What is Europe’s trade policy?. Brussels: European Communities.

    Google Scholar 

  70. UNFCCC (2005). Report of the conference of the parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol on its first session, held at Montreal from 28 November to 10 December 2005. FCCC/KP/CMP/2005/8/Add.3.

  71. UNFCCC (n.d). Previous submissions from Parties to the AWG-LCA (2008–2011). Accessed October 17, 2012.

  72. Van Alstine, J., Afionis, S., & Doran, P. (2013). The UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio + 20): A sign of the times or ‘ecology as spectacle’? Environmental Politics, 22(2), 333–338.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  73. Vasconcelos, À. (2010). A strategy for EU foreign policy. Paris: European Union Institute for Security Studies.

    Google Scholar 

  74. Viola, E., & Franchini, M. (2012). Climate politics in Brazil: Public awareness, social transformations and emissions reduction. In I. Bailey & H. Compston (Eds.), Feeling the heat: The politics of climate policy in rapidly industrializing countries. Palgrave: Houndmills.

    Google Scholar 

  75. Vogler, J. (2000). The global commons: Environmental and technological governance. Chichester: Wiley.

    Google Scholar 

  76. Vogler, J. (2005). The European contribution to global environmental governance. International Affairs, 81(4), 835–850.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  77. Vogler, J., & Stephan, H. R. (2007). The European Union in global environmental governance: Leadership in the making? International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics, 7(4), 389–413.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  78. Warkotsch, A. (2010). Realpolitik and international reaction to non-compliance with liberal democratic norms: Comparing EU and US response patterns. Cooperation and Conflict, 45(1), 80–106.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  79. Wood, S. (2009). The European Union: A normative or normal power? European Foreign Affairs Review, 14(1), 113–128.

    Google Scholar 

  80. Wood, S. (2011). Pragmatic power Europe? Cooperation and Conflict, 46(2), 242–261.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  81. Young, A. R., & Peterson, J. (2013). ‘We care about you, but…’: The politics of EU trade policy and development. Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 26(3), 497–518.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  82. Zielonka, J. (2013). Europe’s new civilizing missions: The EU’s normative power discourse. Journal of Political Ideologies, 18(1), 35–55.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Community’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007–2013) under the Grant Agreement No. 251132. We also thank Jouni Paavola, Julia Leventon, Vivek Mathur, James Porter and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Stavros Afionis.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Afionis, S., Stringer, L.C. The environment as a strategic priority in the European Union–Brazil partnership: is the EU behaving as a normative power or soft imperialist?. Int Environ Agreements 14, 47–64 (2014).

Download citation


  • Climate change
  • Deforestation
  • Biofuels
  • Mercosur
  • Latin America
  • Multilateralism