Europeans have long sought to work with others to address global problems and achieve their own goals. But growing competition among old and emerging powers has caused Europeans’ relative weight to decline, leaving them increasingly struggling to shape their environment and make their voices heard. Despite these challenges, international cooperation remains vital for Europe’s security and prosperity. A functioning multilateral system is critical for ensuring access to transport and communication networks, fostering trade and security partnerships, and tackling climate change. Facing rising temperatures, geopolitical insecurity, and digital transformations, Europeans can no longer afford to only look at each other or their traditional allies for solutions. Only through a broad and multilateral system of global partners can they reach long-lasting and meaningful solutions.
ECFR’s Multilateral Matchmaker helps European policymakers identify partners that are sufficiently aligned with the Europe Union in selected policy areas and which can make relevant contributions to advancing common interests. It concentrates on countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America that are demanding a greater say and have the potential to play a larger role in the multilateral system, but whose potential for cooperation is not yet sufficiently on Europeans’ radar. Much Western attention since the start of Russia’s war on Ukraine has been focused on the so-called middle powers – such as India, Brazil, and South Africa – overlooking opportunities for global cooperation elsewhere. Multilateral Matchmaker instead focuses on a dozen of Europe’s “untapped” multilateral allies and suggests what mutually beneficial partnerships with those countries might look like in five policy areas: climate, development, internet, security, and trade.
To identify these possible partners, we assessed the potential for partnerships in multilateral institutions and processes of more than 140 countries around the world, according to their alignment with the Europe Union and relevance for tackling the challenges in each area. After carefully considering the high scorers and trying to identify a regionally balanced group of pragmatic and strategic partners, we arrived at: Chile, Colombia, Ghana, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, Nigeria, the Philippines, and the United Arab Emirates. These countries scored highly across our chosen policy areas, suggesting that Europeans should pursue broader cross-policy collaboration with them. To ensure the partnerships we recommend are mutually beneficial and guarantee local ownership, we complemented our quantitative research by conducting interviews with experts and policymakers from these 12 countries.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to building fruitful partnerships, as our country profiles show. With some countries, the common ground is more obvious than with others. Nevertheless, three general lessons can be drawn.
Firstly, these countries have been the target of a whole series of charm offensives, thanks to the recent surge in interest in working with countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. In all the interviews we conducted, it was clear that the governments of these countries understand their attractiveness. Europeans should be aware that they are entering a crowded field and that their offer to would-be partners must stand out against other alternatives. They need to signal that they want to build new and sustainable relationships in ways that create value for both sides. To build Europe’s credibility, these partnerships need to go beyond traditional aid and lending programmes. Instead, cooperation must foster modernisation and economic transformation, create value chains and jobs, and help countries bridge the digital divide. Europeans should not give the impression that they are only interested in gaining backing for their causes – such as support for Ukraine. Instead, they should be prepared to also support the multilateral interests of their partners. As such, they should make it easier for these countries to gain access to EU structures, markets, and funding.
Secondly, Europeans should not be under the illusion that they can persuade these countries to side with the West in global systemic competition. Attempts to bifurcate the world, such as the ‘democracies versus autocracies’ prism, will not be welcomed. What we have learned from all of our discussions is that each potential partner country believes that they do not have to choose between allegiances to the global powers. Rather, they want to maximise their sovereignty, maintain or even expand their room for manoeuvre, and determine their own international relations. They finally have something to gain from geopolitical competition, and they believe they can get the best of all worlds. As such, working with EU member states can be very attractive to partner countries, precisely because it allows them to diversify their dependencies amid rising US-China competition. For all of these countries, Europe is part of their hedging efforts, just as Europe’s need to de-risk from China has made alternative supply chains in Africa, Asia, and Latin America more attractive.
Finally, it was also clear from most of the discussions that Europeans are seen to preach and promise, but not necessarily act. For example, many of our African interlocutors said that the 2022 summit between the EU and the African Union raised expectations for a sea change in Europeans’ engagement with African partners, only for promised funds to be redirected to Ukraine after Russia’s full-scale invasion. Similarly, the EU long discouraged African partners from investing in fossil-fuel infrastructure, only to reverse its position when Europeans scrambled to diversify their energy imports away from Russia. In addition, many of our interviewees pointed to the lingering legacy of colonialism and the aftermath of the covid-19 pandemic, and the fact that many countries in the global south still feel abandoned by the rich north. The damages these caused to the EU’s credibility are yet to be repaired.
We also heard much criticism and uncertainty regarding the EU’s infrastructure investment initiative, Global Gateway. When asked about it, one Latin American interlocutor responded, “Yes, but how do I apply?” Asked how he would advise Europeans to improve relations, another said: “Instead of saying ‘we do it differently from China’, Europeans should actually do it.” Latin American interlocutors more broadly expressed a preference for partnerships with the EU vis-à-vis China but lamented that “the EU simply is not there” in a meaningful way, forcing them to build up dependencies on Beijing.
To conclude, there are many alternatives to cooperation with European countries for the partner countries we have chosen – their choices depend on the quality of the offers. Successful multilateral cooperation requires an investment in Europe’s credibility, backed up by concrete initiatives. In order to persuade countries to work together in a multilateral framework, it is first necessary to strengthen and build up bilateral relations. Our tool shows the potential for coalitions on the main global issues – and it helps break the silos between the issue areas that are often considered in isolation by political leaders and policymakers. If European initiatives truly support the needs of the identified partner countries, Europeans will find that they remain attractive to the many actors with a common interest in a functioning international system. To do so, they must recognise their partners’ aspirations for sovereignty, promote their economic development, and meet them without moralising.