Dealing with China means a balancing act for the EU: On the one hand, Europeans must uphold democratic values in competition with the authoritarian-led People’s Republic. On the other hand, the country is an important economic partner. After the round of talks with Beijing on Monday, Commissioner von der Leyen draws a sober conclusion.
EU Council President Charles Michel and Commission President Ursula von der Leyen switched in to China’s President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang’s video conference on Monday.
There were a number of issues in the way of the virtual summit: fear of a Chinese post-corona bargain tour through the European corporate landscape, security-relevant European coverage structures such as the 5G mobile phone standard, the threatened autonomy status of Hong Kong and the disinformation campaigns about Corona.
Given the plethora of problems, Brussels was happy to have an exchange of views at all but those opinions apparently remained incompatible in essential points.
Chinese Shopping Tour Warnings
With the powerful trading partner China, one does not like to verbally engage. When the European Commission made its security recommendations for handling the new 5G mobile communications technology, it was important to them that they were not supposed to be aimed at a specific country – it was clear that it was primarily about the Chinese group Huawei and its strong market position .
Even when the Commission presented measures against the competitive advantages of state-subsidized foreign investors in the common internal market only last week, it was said again that this was not primarily about a specific country.
Others in Brussels speak in plain text. For example, the leaders of the CDU / CSU group in the European Parliament, Daniel Caspary (CDU) and Angelika Niebler (CSU), declared the Commission’s move that one should not allow “countries like China to go on a state-sponsored shopping tour in Europe and at the same time isolate their markets from foreign investment ”.
Her CDU colleague Stefan Berger, rapporteur for Parliament’s annual competition report, becomes even clearer: “Fresh out of state rehab, Chinese companies are going on a shopping spree in Europe,” to get key technologies at a bargain price and at the same time implement political goals ”.
Sales moratorium required for ailing companies
Berger points to a worrying trend: Since 2008 there have been around 360 Chinese company holdings in Europe and German companies are the most veted. The EU commission now not only wants to subject entire company takeovers, but also larger participation’s from abroad to a stricter regime. They should be subject to a reporting requirement if the investors concerned have recently received government aid but Berger is not satisfied. He calls for “a six-month moratorium on sales by European companies that have run into difficulties in the wake of the Corona crisis “.
“Reinhard Bütikofer, Chairman of the China delegation to the European Parliament, also demands a“ robust common position of the Europeans towards China ”. For him, is the situation in Hong Kong, Beijing’s new “national security law” threatens the autonomy of the former British crown colony.
The EU must not only criticize this, but must follow practical steps. For Bütikofer, this includes “endangered democracy activists in Hong Kong and there must also be sanctions against “human rights violations by Chinese officials”.
Human rights issues “raised”
In Beijing, such criticism traditionally not only falls on deaf ears, but also on sharp reactions. In preparation for the video summit, the Commission only said in relation to this topic that human rights issues would be “raised with the Chinese side”.
However, the Commission showed more courage in a communication to counter disinformation campaigns in the wake of the Covid 19 epidemic. “Foreign actors and certain third countries, especially Russia and China, are trying to exert influence and are carrying out disinformation campaigns in connection with Covid-19 in the EU, its neighboring countries and worldwide to undermine the democratic debate, to intensify social polarization and to polish up their own image in the Covid 19 context. ”
Russia and China are moving closer together
At the same time, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels pointed out that Russia and China were working together more and more. The Chinese are in the process of fundamentally shifting the global balance of power. With the second largest defense budget in the world, they invested heavily in modern military technology. “They are moving closer to us in cyberspace,” added the Norwegian . At the same time, Beijing has interests in Africa and the Arctic region and invest “in our critical infrastructure” – in other words, in security-related utilities such as mobile communications.
The Federal Republic originally planned to hold an EU-China summit in Leipzig during its presidency starting on July 1 in September. This has been postponed. The official reason was the corona situation. Given the abundance of conflict areas, it remains to be seen whether substantial results would have been achieved.
Among Brussels Eurocrats it was already considered a success that the video conference on Monday even took place. After the virtual summit, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen spoke of a “vital and complex partnership” and complained: “We continue to have an unbalanced trade and investment relationship.”
System competition with an authoritarian power
There was no common explanation after the video conference. In the diplomatic jargon, the fact that the discussion was “open” according to the top of the EU indicates that essential issues remained. CDU competition politician Stefan Berger insists: “China is responsible for Europe. Xi Jinping now has to prove that European-Chinese relations are shaped not only by competition, but by constructive cooperation. A concrete step towards an investment agreement would have been the right signal in the dialogue. Further years of negotiations cement the current state of distortion of competition. ”
Such an investment agreement between the two sides is sought, but is far from ready for signature. The EU faces the difficult task of upholding democratic values in the systemic competition with the authoritarian-led People’s Republic of China, while taking vital economic interests into account. After the apparently difficult discussions, von der Leyen came to this dilemma in a matter-of-fact analysis: China was both a negotiating partner and a “commercial competitor and systemic rival”.
The EU is China’s largest trading partner, the People’s Republic the second largest of the Europeans. Daily goods traffic between the two sides alone is worth more than one billion euros. It is sometimes difficult to find clear words. Especially since it is a powerful interlocutor with specific sensitivities, who should not be threatened with losing face. That is why EU chief diplomat Josep Borrell recently explicitly assigned China the status of a superpower.
“China is one of the most important global players. That’s a fact. We have to work with China based on our interests and values. ”
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