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EU-China summit: What really happened?

Richard Walker
June 4, 2020

The EU and China have postponed a hotly anticipated summit, blaming COVID-19. But with infections down, the economy reopening, and China under fire over its clampdown on Hong Kong — is the pandemic the real reason?

Angela Merkel and Xi Jinping in 2018 in Beijing
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler

It was meant to be the geopolitical highlight of Germany's upcoming stint in the presidency of the European Union — the first-ever summit between the Chinese president and the leaders of all 27 EU member states, hosted by Angela Merkel herself in the German city of Leipzig this September.

The goal: no less than reshaping EU-China relations for the new decade, with a better deal for European companies investing in China and closer cooperation on climate change topping the agenda.

Now, it's off.

A terse late-evening statement from Merkel's spokesperson announced that all sides agreed "in light of the overall pandemic situation, the meeting cannot take place on the date as planned, but should be rescheduled." No new date was mentioned.

Read more: Germany to mediate between US, China during EU presidency

The announcement set rumors swirling that there was more here than met the eye.

After all, many EU countries are rapidly scaling back their COVID-19 restrictions, with deaths and infections down and huge pressure to revive the economy. Even summer tourism will be possible in many parts of the EU. Surely, with three months to prepare, such an important summit could safely take place in a country — Germany — that had fared relatively well through the pandemic?

The US vs. China - A new Cold War?

At the same time, geopolitical tensions between China and the West have been soaring.

Just a week ago, Beijing moved to tighten its grip on the former British colony of Hong Kong, with a new national security law seen as a potential death-knell for freedoms in the territory. The EU's top diplomat expressed "grave concern" and underlined Europe's need for a more "robust" approach to Beijing. And there are calls for concrete action. The head of the European Parliament's delegation on China, Reinhard Bütikofer, told DW: "Like the UK, we should give our protection to Hong Kong democrats who need it — taking them in where necessary."

China's move also added to a deepening crisis in relations between Beijing and Washington, which has seen US President Donald Trump and Chinese diplomats engaged in a bitter blame game over the coronavirus outbreak. For some observers, the two sides are even on the brink of a new Cold War.

Delaying tactics

All in all, these were hardly auspicious circumstances for a summit between the EU and China. Still, Germany's ambassador to the European Union doubled down in an online event, saying the postponement was "exclusively COVID-related."

Reinhard Bütikofer says this is not the whole story. "There was no expectation of progress to speak of by September on the main issues of investment and climate. A summit without substance could easily have turned into an embarrassment." A video conference between the two sides is said to be still on, as an attempt to seek progress.

The Trump-Biden factor

But the delay brings many added benefits, particularly with a view to the biggest political date in the 2020 calendar: the US election in November. Many European leaders are quietly rooting for a victory for Joe Biden, a more traditional transatlanticist than Trump, who has been openly hostile to the European Union.

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Holding the EU-China summit just weeks ahead of the US election would have run the risk of Trump using it to make political hay, accusing Europe of cozying up to his archrivals in Beijing — all the more since Angel Merkel turned down his invitation to a G7 gathering in Washington, DC, in July.

Looking ahead, the election winner will have a significant impact on the EU's calculations as it calibrates relations with Beijing. "If Trump is reelected, I think there will be a temptation in Europe to hedge and keep China close," says Noah Barkin of the German Marshall Fund. "It may feel a little more comfortable about pushing back against China when it knows it has an ally in Washington."

Can Europe agree?

But the EU will face challenges dealing with China whoever wins the White House — not least because Beijing has been wading deep into Europe itself.

Read more: Sieren's China: New Silk Road hangs in the balance

In the seven years since Xi Jinping took power, China has developed global ambitions with a growing impact in Europe. The EU's third-largest member, Italy, has signed up to its mammoth "Belt and Road" infrastructure project, tempted by the prospect of billions in investment for its struggling economy. Other smaller countries are also building lucrative ties with China, either through Belt and Road or its "17+1" grouping with Central and Eastern European nations.

Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands witht Italian President Sergio Mattarella in Rome in March 2019
China has been wooing Italy and other, smaller European countriesImage: Reuters/T. Fabi

"This is a way for Beijing to make sure that Europe is divided," says Nadege Rolland, a veteran of the French Defense Ministry now at the US-based National Bureau of Asian Research. "These economic opportunities that China is putting on the table can be quite vital. This is enormous leverage that Beijing has on the decisions of these countries."

This complicates the EU's stated aim of taking a more "robust" line on China. And it's not only cash-strapped states that might stand in the way. "Germany is a more problematic partner than Berlin is keen to acknowledge" says MEP Reinhard Bütikofer, a member of the Greens. "Germany's dependence on exports to China is significantly greater than our neighbors'."

'Appeasement doesn't pay'

These are the realities the EU faces: caught in the middle of a possible new Cold War between a difficult America and an encroaching China, juggling its own internal divisions and to top it all, a global pandemic. In the light of all this, the postponement of a potentially highly controversial summit looks hardly surprising.

But as Noah Barkin points out, there will ultimately be no avoiding these issues. "We have to get beyond some of these events. I think next year the EU will have to sit down and really think hard about its strategy towards China."

When the time comes, Reinhard Bütikofer says, Germany has a responsibility to look beyond its economic interests. "They can't come at the cost of our shared values. Appeasement doesn't pay."