10th ASEM in Milan and the importance of being one: EU’s big challenge on the way to China

Li Keqiang, Prime Minister of China, José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission and Herman van Rompuy, President of the European Council consulting a book (from right to left). This photo was taken during ASEM Milan 2014 last week and depicts the significant EU interest in further enhancing China-EU relations (EC Audiovisual Services, 15/10/2014)

Li Keqiang, Prime Minister of China, José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission and Herman van Rompuy, President of the European Council consulting a book (from right to left). This photo was taken during ASEM Milan 2014 last week and depicts the significant EU interest in further enhancing China-EU relations (EC Audiovisual Services, 15/10/2014)

The 10th Asia-Europe meeting (ASEM) in Milan, Italy, concluded last Friday after two full days of work. The meeting was established in 1996 and it has since become a key forum for new cooperation proposals between Europe and Asia.

Russia-Ukraine question has probably been the this edition’s hottest topic under the spotlight, as Milan summit offered indeed Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko a big chance to have discussions about the still delicate Russia-Ukraine question and to reach important agreements.

That was not all that happened in the Northern Italian city though. Russia and Ukraine were not the only countries which participated actively to the Milan sessions, maximizing the potential of this meeting between nations. China confirmed itself once again as one of the most active nations on the foreign policy front from that part of the world.

Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang was one of the most awaited attendees. The EU and China are two of the biggest traders in the world. China is now EU’s second trading partner behind the United States and the EU is China’s biggest trading partner. Indeed many claim that China saw in the ASEM summit a big opportunity to enhance trade relationship with the EU, as it is no secret that the investment flows from the Old Continent towards China are believed to be far below their potential in the huge Asian country. “Dialogues amongst leaders from the two continents who met in Italy was an occasion for China to seek stronger ties with EU partners”, Thomas Rosenthal, head of strategy and external relations at the Italy-China Foundation, said last week.

An EU official press release at the morrow of the meeting from Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council, José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, and Premier Li Keqiang, showed that the meeting has been satisfactory for both sides, underlining the importance of the EU-China Strategic Partnership. “The EU and China reaffirmed their commitment to finalise as early as possible negotiations on an ambitious bilateral investment agreement, which promotes open markets and a level playing field”, the statement said, also adding that both the EU and China “stressed the crucial importance of their trade and investment relationship”.

At the same time every EU member knows the importance of China for a quicker recovery of the global economy, and that trade could be a key factor to get back to stable growth. The ASEM summit was also the place for further intra-EU discussions on austerity and, indeed, growth. French President Francois Hollande and Italian Prime Minster Matteo Renzi made a plea for growth, stressing the need for expansive measures.

“Relaunching growth is the best way of stabilising the markets”, Hollande told the press as he arrived in Italy’s financial capital for the start of the two-day meeting. “We have cancelled the word ‘growth’ for years to focus on fiscal discipline, but we cannot exit this crisis without investments”, Mr. Renzi echoed. But the two leaders also mentioned the weight of Europe’s internal problems. “Having growth which is so low, having questions and uncertainty about the investment plan which has to be put in place, also having successive austerity plans, one on top of the other, create doubt in the markets”, Mr. Hollande said to the press, as reported by Reuters.

Chinese investors know the situation very well. Indeed some further statements by Mr. Rosenthal to the Chinese Xinhua sounded like a warning. “China is both a driver of the world’s globalization and a follower country eager to exchange experiences and pursue economic cooperation with EU partners,” Rosenthal said. “But the EU member states’ internal divisions and consequent inability to show a unique political face and a common economic strategy pose big obstacles to bilateral dialogue,” he explained to Xinhua.

Many analysts claim that the talks and the agreements reached these days will help boost China-EU trade relations and strengthen collaborations, even though it’s no secret that the lack of a “united” approach by the EU still represents a huge obstacle to further development. And this is some kind of challenge that the EU should win on many fronts.

The 10th ASEM held in Milan took place under the theme “Responsible Partnership for Sustainable Growth and Security.” Heads of state and governments of 29 European states and 22 Asian partners attended. The next ASEM summit will be held in Mongolia in 2016. We hope that in two years time several positive evolutions in business development and cultural exchange will be able to take interest of EU-Asia discussions to the next level.

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