When French President Emmanuel Macron was recently in China on a three-day visit, he said that he was speaking in the name of Europe. Such a comment might not have gone down well in Berlin. Or did Macron confer with German Chancellor Angela Merkel before going to China?
Though it should by now have become a routine, it certainly has not: Even Germany and France — the EU's core countries — find it difficult to find a consensus when it comes to China. Macron did indeed invite Merkel to Paris when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited in spring to demonstrate EU cooperation but his point was also to send out a message that if France makes such an invitation Germany complies. Nevertheless, the "one for all" symbolism is important, even if the EU is far from having a common China strategy.
Joint EU contribution in Shanghai
It was therefore symbolic that there was a concerted EU presence at the China International Import Expo in Shanghai. Anja Karliczek, the German Minister of Education and Research, and the incoming EU commissioner for trade Phil Hogan stood side by side with Macron who said to China: "I know how committed you are to the European Union and we must build a stable partnership on the big questions of the world in a world that is more and more destabilized." Karliczek added that both sides were in favor of a rule-based international trade system. Macron, a grand master in such affairs, had five ministers with him. Why did Germany not at least send its economy minister as well?
Generally, Macron's tone was more diplomatic than that of the EU's most recent strategy paper in which China was spoken of as an "economic partner as well as competitor." He said that Brussels and Beijing had to move towards each other. After his trip, he stated clearly in an interview with The Economist: "We find ourselves for the first time with an American president who doesn't share our idea of the European project, and American policy is diverging from this project. We need to draw conclusions from the consequences."
Pointing out that the EU was vulnerable, he was saying aloud what others have been thinking in silence: The transatlantic alliance is collapsing, while China is becoming increasingly strong. In conclusion, the EU needs a joint strategy regarding China that is precise and clear in order to yield results. Of course, he was speaking about the EU but also about France. This is the dilemma of European structures.
Beijing increasingly influential in Europe
Beijing has not waited for Brussels. In small but constant steps, China has gained increasing influence in Europe, almost bypassing the EU. With its 17+1 summits, China has created coalitions with smaller EU states and those on the outskirts, especially those in which Brussels failed to invest in the infrastructure. The Greek government thought it made more sense to work more closely with China during the financial crisis than with the EU, which showed itself to be so stubborn.
This strategy paid off: The port of Piraeus is not only the busiest in the Mediterranean, but has also become one of the most important bridgeheads for the New Silk Road project giving China more access to EU markets. Beijing and Athens just signed 16 further agreements relating to energy, tourism, law and culture. This is a success story shared by other countries and not only those who consider themselves "losers" with regard to EU policy. So far, Beijing has always pushed for bilateral agreements to avoid complications with Brussels. This is due to change.
An EU-China investment agreement?
At the end of 2020, the heads of all the EU's member states are due to meet China's political representatives at an EU-China summit in Leipzig. Brussels will never have given China so much undivided attention. The ultimate goal is an EU-China investment agreement to ease market access on both sides. The idea is also to clarify certain legal issues regarding external investment in China to reassure EU companies.
German companies in China, for example, feel heavily disadvantaged by the current market restrictions, according to the head of the German Chamber of Commerce in Beijing, Jens Hildebrandt. In a recent survey, over half of the German companies in China, said that they would increase their investments in China if they were guaranteed more market access.
Such an agreement would be a huge step forward for both China and the EU. At the same time, it can only be a beginning. First, the EU has to find a way of speaking with one voice. Secondly it has to learn to think bigger politically. The EU's policy regarding industry and business needs to be worthy of this name and has to be as strategic and long-term as China's. If the EU "can't think of itself as a global power, it will disappear," Macron recently said. This will not be possible without painful compromises on the part of all the member states. But anyone who understands how powerful China is about to become should be willing to make these.
Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for over 20 years.