Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva leaves Thursday for his first trip to Europe since taking office in January, amid a row with Western nations over his recent comments on the Ukraine war.
The veteran leftist will visit Portugal and Spain, looking to "relaunch Brazil's relations with Europe," according to his Foreign Ministry's European affairs Secretary Maria Luisa Escorel de Moraes.
Lula has been pushing to set up a group of countries to mediate peace talks between Russia and Ukraine, and the topic will be on the agenda for the trip, the ministry said.
But the 77-year-old ex-metalworker, who previously led Brazil from 2003 to 2010, could face some diplomatic awkwardness after recent comments chiding the European Union and United States over the conflict.
Visiting China last week, Lula said Washington should stop "encouraging" the war, and that the United States and EU "need to start talking about peace."
He has also angered Ukraine in recent days by saying it shares the blame for the conflict and suggesting it should agree to give up the Crimea peninsula, which Russia forcefully annexed in 2014 in a prelude to its invasion of Ukraine last year.
After a flurry of criticism from Europe, Ukraine and the United States – including the White House, which accused him of "parroting Russian and Chinese propaganda" – Lula dialled back what some saw as his anti-Western tone, saying Tuesday that Brazil "condemned" Russia's invasion.
Lula, who was named to Time magazine's list of the world's most influential people last week, had been basking in a high-profile glow in the international arena since making his presidential comeback.
But the Ukraine episode may have damaged his diplomatic capital as he heads for meetings with the Portuguese and Spanish prime ministers, António Costa and Pedro Sánchez.
'Unbalanced' on Ukraine
Lula returned to the presidency vowing "Brazil is back" on the international stage after four years of relative isolation under far-right president Jair Bolsonaro (2019-2022).
Seeking to revive Brazil's role as a deal-maker and go-between, he has vowed to cultivate friendly ties with all countries, and resisted taking sides with either the US and Europe, on one hand, or China and Russia, on the other.
His visit to Chinese President Xi Jinping last week came after a high-profile White House visit with Joe Biden in February.
But now "the scale is a bit unbalanced," said international relations expert Pedro Brites of Brazil's Getúlio Vargas Foundation.
Lula's European mini-tour will be a chance to make a "readjustment" and "show he believes in the vision of global democracy that Europe stands for."
In Lisbon, Lula is scheduled to be welcomed with honours Saturday by Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa.
After having lunch with Costa, Lula and the prime minister will hold a high-level meeting where the two countries will sign a series of deals on energy, science, education and other sectors.
Portugal, Brazil's colonial ruler until 1822, is "Brazil's gateway to the EU," said Foreign Ministry official Moraes.
Brazil is notably keen to finalise a long-stalled trade deal between the EU and South American bloc Mercosur (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay).
The deal has been held up by European concerns over environmental issues, especially the Brazilian agricultural industry's destruction of the Amazon rainforest – something Lula has vowed to stop.
On Monday, Lula and Costa will head to second city Porto to address a business forum.
Back in the capital, they will preside at a gala to present the Camoes prize, the highest honour in Portuguese language and literature, to beloved Brazilian singer-songwriter Chico Buarque.
Lula's agenda in Portugal will wrap up Tuesday with an address to parliament as it marks the anniversary of the Carnation Revolution in 1974, which ended Portugal's last military dictatorship.
He will then head to Spain on Tuesday and Wednesday, where he will meet with King Felipe VI and Prime Minister Sanchez, the Foreign Ministry said.
by Ramon Sahmkow, AFP