Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS) have, since the beginning of the 21st century, gained greater influence in global political and economic affairs and, since 2006, also steadily developed and increased their political dialogue and cooperation. South Africa joining the BRICS political grouping in 2011 was matched by a strengthening of the BRICS dialogue. This was reflected in the broadening range of issues covered, the increasing level of specificity of the BRICS joint declarations and cooperation, and the institutionalization of BRICS cooperation in various policy fields, including the creation of the New Development Bank (NDB). Notwithstanding the increased interaction between the BRICS states on the various political, economic, and diplomatic levels, the countries differ considerably in their political, economic, military, and demographic weight and interests and in their regional and global aspirations. China particularly stands out among the BRICS due to its political and economic weight. There are sufficient reasons to question the significance and impact of the BRICS format. Still, the BRICS countries have found each other in their commitment to counter the “unjust” Western-dominated multilateral world in which they are generally underrepresented.
The EU did not develop a “BRICS policy” as such, which is understandable given the major differences between the BRICS countries and the ambiguous nature of the BRICS format. To deal with the various emerging powers and complement its predominantly regional partnerships, the EU instead institutionalized and deepened the political and economic bilateral relations with each of the BRICS countries, including through the objective of establishing a bilateral “strategic partnership” with each of these countries. However, the analysis of the EU’s relationship with the BRICS countries indicates that the label “strategic partnerships” mainly served as a rhetorical façade which belied that the EU failed to turn these relationships into real strategic partnerships and to behave strategically toward the BRICS countries.
Another challenge for the EU appears when analyzing the BRICS within the broader context of various emerging power constellations and multilateral frameworks, including variations of the BRICS format (such as BRICS Plus, BASIC, and IBSA), multilateral frameworks with one or more BRICS countries at their center (such as the SCO, EAEU, and BRI), and regional forums launched by China. Taken together, they point to an increasingly dense set of partially overlapping formal and informal networks on all political, diplomatic, and administrative levels, covering an ever-wider scope of policy areas and providing opportunities for debate, consultation, and coordination. Whereas most of these forums are in and of themselves not very influential, taken together they have an impact on the EU and its traditional view on multilateralism in several ways. Seen from this perspective, the BRICS and other multilateral forums pose major challenges for both European diplomats and European scholars. They will have to make considerable efforts to understand and engage with these various forums, which are manifestations of an increasingly influential and powerful non-Western world wherein the role of Europe is much more limited.