Relations between Brazil and Germany have been strained for years. Shortly after joining the select group of strategic partners in Berlin, Brasília began to be shunned by the European country. During the four years he was in power, Jair Bolsonaro did not receive any visit from a German Federal Chancellor, nor was he invited to Berlin. Strategic cooperation has already been suspended by the German government.
However, since the election of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Germany has been rehearsing a rapprochement with its most important partner in Latin America. The visit of the Federal Chancellor of Germany, Olaf Scholz, to Brazil, which will take place next Monday (01/30), is yet another sign of this interest. It is the second trip by a German delegation to the country in less than a month, after the presence of the German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, at Lula’s inauguration.
But after a turbulent period, the road to reestablishing old ties can be more difficult than it appears at first glance. “Lula’s election was seen with relief in Germany, but it could be a trap, as the coordinates have changed with the Bolsonaro government. Besides, Germany and Europe will face great competition with China. the old project and the old recipe, a new proposal is needed to find a new common interest”, evaluates political scientist Günther Maihold, acting director of the German Institute for International Politics and Security (SWP).
The ties between Brazil and Germany go back a long way. The 19th century marked the peak of German migration to the Latin American country. During this period, commercial and economic relations were also strengthened. Germany was at the time one of the main buyers of sugar and coffee from Brazil, and also imported tobacco, cotton and leather.
At the end of the 19th century, some German companies established themselves in the country, such as Siemens, in 1895, and Bayer, in 1896. With the world wars, there was a break in bilateral relations, but which returned with full force from the 1950s, when large German companies, such as Volkswagen and BASF, opened factories in Brazil. And thus, São Paulo became the largest German industrial center outside the country.
In the political sphere, in the years after the Second World War, countries signed several cooperation agreements – in nuclear energy, agriculture, economics, scientific research, technological development, forest preservation and cinematographic co-production. This relationship reached a new level in 2008, when the then German Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel and then President Lula signed a strategic partnership plan, something unprecedented among Latin American countries.
This partnership aimed to deepen environmental and energy cooperation, in the areas of defense, security, science and technology, in social issues and those related to work, sustainable development and human rights. There was also a search for a more refined performance in international rounds such as those that take place within the scope of the United Nations (UN), mainly in relation to the structure of the Security Council.
This was the first step towards greater cooperation. In 2015, the two countries even promoted the first Brazil-Germany High Level Intergovernmental Consultations. At the time, only ten countries were part of the select group of closest partners of Berlin: France, Spain, Italy, Poland, Israel, Russia, China, India, Tunisia and Holland. Merkel was in Brasília with a delegation of ministers and secretaries who met with their Brazilian counterparts. At the end of the meeting, new rounds of talks were planned in this area every two years, but this never happened.
“It is a symbolic policy. This format foresees not only a trip by a delegation with the chancellor, but frequent meetings of the highest government levels to address important issues for both countries. Since the impeachment of 2016, Germany has seen the situation in Brazil as worrying and kept his distance”, says political scientist Peter Birle, scientific director of the Ibero-American Institute.
The strain on bilateral relations began after the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff. In 2017, Merkel was in Latin America, visiting Argentina and Mexico, but avoided Brazil. The relationship, which was already shaken, cooled even more during the Bolsonaro government.
“International relations, in general, suffered under the Bolsonaro government, due to its radicalism, its neglect of environmental policy and the promotion of actions that harmed the Amazon and indigenous communities”, points out political scientist Mariana Llanos, from the German Institute for Studies Global and Regional (Giga).
In June 2019, then-Chancellor Merkel said she viewed the situation in Brazil under Bolsonaro with “great concern”. A short time later, amid rising deforestation in the Amazon and Bolsonaro’s inertia in combating the problem, Germany suspended transfers to the Amazon Fund – a mechanism created in 2008 to finance actions to prevent and combat deforestation in the biome. The European country also froze other environmental programs in the region.
At the time, Bolsonaro downplayed what happened. “She [Alemanha] it will no longer buy the Amazon, it will stop buying the Amazon in installments. You can put that money to good use. Brazil doesn’t need that,” he said.
In 2020, the German government also admitted the difficulty of cooperating with Brazil in areas such as environmental policy and assistance to indigenous peoples.
But the removal was not only driven by the German side. “Germany avoided Brazil during the Bolsonaro government, but Bolsonaro did not have much interest in Germany either”, highlights Birle.
In 2021, Bolsonaro even met in Brasilia with German deputy Beatrix von Storch, then deputy leader of the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD), whose deputies are not usually received by foreign governments due to their extremist tendencies.
In the economic sphere, there was continuity in relations. “Germany has a stabilized presence in Brazil in this area, but there were no new large investments due to the instability created with the Bolsonaro government”, says Maihold.
a fresh start
Given this scenario, Scholz’s trip can be seen as a clear sign of support for the new government, assesses Llanos. “After Bolsonaro’s years of ostracism, Brazil is back on the international scene”, he points out.
The German chancellor’s trip, which also includes Argentina and Chile, also signals that the German government supports the current direction of the governments of these countries. The three South American nations currently have left-wing governments, and Scholz’s Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) is center-left.
In Brazil, the SPD still has a historical connection with the PT. In 2021, Lula met in Berlin with Scholz after the result of the last German election, when he was still negotiating the formation of the current government. On the same trip, the PT member met other social-democratic politicians. While he was in prison, several SPD figures expressed their solidarity with Lula. In 2018, Martin Schulz, former leader of the German SPD and former president of the European Parliament, visited Lula in Curitiba in prison.
In addition to showing that support and addressing the environmental issue, experts say there are also commercial interests in Scholz’s visit. Representatives of the German economic sector are part of the entourage that will go to Brazil. Germany is mainly looking for new partners for the production of green hydrogen.