It is a curious piece of sports trivia that the first match ever played by the Brazilian national football team, which took place in my home city of Rio de Janeiro in 1914, was against none other than Exeter City.
Why did Devon’s finest choose to play the fixture? The explanation lies in the significant cultural ties that Brazil and Britain already enjoyed.
It had been a British-Brazilian man, Charles Miller, who introduced football to Brazil in 1894. And British involvement in Brazil’s economy played an important role in its development, leaving their mark on my country – quite literally in the case of the British-built railways, laid in the nineteenth century, which still snake across the landscape around Rio and São Paulo.
Today, against the backdrop of Brexit, Brazilians pay close attention to talk of the UK re-invigorating its trade and investments with partners beyond the frontiers of Europe.
We certainly wish to see British companies take inspiration from their Victorian forebears and become partners in major projects aimed at modernising our infrastructure. If the British economy is to become even more globally oriented, the forging of closer commercial ties with Brazil should be a natural part of that process.
We are, after all, the eighth biggest economy in the world, and a gateway to the South American trade bloc Mercosur. Five years ago, when Brexit was no more than a twinkle in the eyes of certain politicians, the then foreign secretary William Hague declared during a visit to Rio that the days of British “retreat” from Latin America were over, and emphasised the UK’s “economic compatibility” with Brazil in particular.
The potential dynamism of the UK-Brazil business relationship is quite obvious. Total bilateral trade between our two countries expanded at a remarkable rate in the first decade of this century, more than doubling between 2005 and 2011.
UK-Brazil business relationship
British exports to Brazil increased 150 per cent during that short period. Since then there has been a slight loss of momentum, yet some British exports to Brazil have continued to surge, in particular medicinal and pharmaceutical products.
On the other hand, an outstanding example of recent British investment in Brazil is the £240m manufacturing facility opened last year by Jaguar Land Rover near Rio – the very first UK automotive facility in Latin America. The last few years have also seen major British investment in Brazil’s oil sector, with Shell becoming the largest single foreign investor in any area of our economy.
One helpful factor, as emphasised by the UK’s Department for International Trade, has been the similarity between the exploration in the North Sea and Brazil’s offshore “pre-salt” fields. There are, according to the British trade department, about 200 British suppliers of equipment and services currently involved in the Brazilian oil and gas and maritime sectors.
The UK’s trade deficit with Brazil is less than half of what it was ten years ago, and with Brazil now emerging from recession – the IMF’s recent World Economic Outlook predicted our GDP to grow by 1.7 per cent in 2018 – the prospects for British exporters are set to improve again.
That will be good news for, among others, Scotch whisky producers, whose post-Brexit fortunes were talked up recently by foreign secretary Boris Johnson during the Lord Mayor’s banquet in the City of London. In terms of volume, the Brazilian market is the eighth biggest in the world for Scotch whisky exports – more than 40 million bottles made their way to our shores in 2016.
Given these opportunities, we see ourselves as natural partners if post-Brexit Britain becomes, in the words of Boris Johnson, “more outward-looking and more engaged with the world than ever before”.
The conditions are ripe for British and Brazilian entrepreneurship to flourish. British pioneers should be confident that engaging with Brazil can lead to big things. Just ask Exeter City.
The article was written by Eduardo dos Santos, the Brazilian ambassador to the UK