The BRICS summit and Europe’s China challenge: A better EU offer for the global south

‘We want to export finished products, not rock and sand.’ That was a key message from the South African president at this week’s BRICS summit. Cyril Ramaphosa noted the importance of raw materials such as lithium, cobalt, and nickel – and argued their processing should take place in Africa.

Developing countries are increasingly determined to move up global value chains. To this end, many leaders are looking to diversify their relationships and thereby reduce their dependence on the West. Indeed, more than 60 governments were invited to this year’s summit, alongside Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.

Europe’s slow start

China has long presented itself as a better partner for developing countries than the former colonial powers. This is part of a geopolitical struggle and is not always favourable to local development, but Chinese offers of financing and cooperation are often attractive to political elites in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.

Europeans were late in responding to Beijing’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative. The European Union’s response – Global Gateway – still lacks strategic planning and sufficient resources. Other EU measures, like the carbon border adjustment mechanism, are also creating tensions, as evident in the Brazilian president’s attack on “green neo-colonialism” at the summit.

Meanwhile, China has diversified from financing infrastructure to broader cooperation, partly under its Global Development Initiative. Massive numbers of talented young people from developing countries are studying in Chinese universities under favourable terms. China is investing in joint research, demonstration projects, and local skills development.

Europeans remain slow to support South Africa’s green innovation ecosystem

The EU and its member states have promised global south states cooperation on industrial development, such as when they have made deals on critical raw materials and energy (including hydrogen). However, cooperation is taking too long to materialise. Chinese investors are showing strong interest in South Africa’s plans to increase production capacity for renewable energy technology and electrification of transport. In contrast, Europeans remain slow to support the country’s green innovation ecosystem and local certification of green tech. The situation is similar elsewhere in the global south, and on other issues, such as digitalisation.

Concrete action now

Europeans must rapidly improve their offer. As described in other ECFR publications, this should include:

  • Providing better support for the joint development of green tech and digital solutions, such as through an EU co-innovation and green tech diffusion fund.
  • Using the midterm review of the Horizon Europe programme to include stronger research cooperation with the global south.
  • Encouraging closer links between European research institutes and innovation ecosystems in developing countries, including joint ventures and better testing facilities.
  • Building capacity through expanded twinning between institutions in Europe and in partner countries.
  • Extending the scope of student exchange programmes and skills development support.

For Brazil, India, and South Africa, BRICS cooperation is not about taking China’s side in a geopolitical struggle, but about progressing their own economic development under fair conditions. The same goes for potential new members such as Indonesia. By pursuing genuine joint development with the global south, Europe can remain relevant in the emerging global order.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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