Why the call of Presidents Michel and Xi should help get EU-China relations back on track asap

President Michel on phone call with President of China. Copyright: European Union.

Last Friday, a much anticipated high level call call took place between EU Council’s President Charles Michel and China’s President Xi Jinping. The call came exactly one month after the European Parliament’s issued “vision” of the China-EU relations and following a year of setbacks in the EU-China relations.

Overall, the leaders’ call was positive allowing the world to “vision” a much needed stronger EU-China relationship amidst the pandemic and a large array of crises globally. It also created expectations for a China-EU summit soon to realize but without a date set yet.

China’s President Xi speaking

China’s President during the call invited the EU to sit together to enhance communication between the parties and strengthen the China-EU relations in the interest of both. President Xi recognized that since the beginning of 2021 the relations of the two sides stumbled upon a few issues which with mutual respect and balanced dialogue can all be resolved.

China’s Head underlined that both sides should invest on policy communication about the environment and digital technology, explore practical cooperation, connect the Belt and Road Initiative and the global EU Connectivity Strategy, and boost collaboration in climate change and biodiversity protection.

He continued by inviting the European Union to join the ambitious Global Development Initiative and come together with China in the work to enable the developing world to achieve the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

Mr. Xi Jinping recognized that the two parties have different history and culture and differences are understandable and to be anticipated. However, all should be resolved with fair and mutual dialogue and an ability to understand each other better. During the call he expressed his hope that the EU will understand as part of its autonomous strategy what is right and wrong and will work with China to benefit from a good and steady EU-China collaboration.

The EU’s side of the line

President Michel remained during the call committed to multilateralism and a general intent to have good and constructive negotiations with China. He reiterated his recognition that the two sides have different political and cultural systems but he expressed his will is to resolve differences through dialogue.

The President of the European Council talked about the growth of the EU-China collaboration in digital and environment as well as international issues like Afghanistan. Especially on the latter President Michel talked with his Chinese counterpart about the political crisis in that country.

On the Taiwan issue, the former Premier of Belgium underscored that the EU never seized to abide by the one-China policy.

The European Parliament’s foggy vision

The two leaders’ call came a month sharp after the European Parliament launched its pointy report about a new European strategy on China, which continued to shoot itself in the foot by nurturing a hostile scene towards EU’s biggest trading partner.

The report which received 570 votes in favour, 61 against with 40 abstentions addressed 6 pillars to work on with China: “cooperation on global challenges, engagement on international norms and human rights, identifying risks and vulnerabilities, building partnerships with like-minded partners, fostering strategic autonomy and defending European interests and values.”

While the above sounds in general reasonable and diplomatically correct, the report continues later with its edgy breakdown. First, it reiterates an issue that for a big part of the world has been considered as resolved, which is the origins of the COVID-19 outbreak starting from Wuhan, China. Second, the report narrates once more that the EU threatens that it will not ratify the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) if China doesn’t lift sanctions against MEPs and EU institutions, although the latter were imposed in the first place as a response to the Parliament’s act to not ratify the CAI. On the contrary, the report asks the Commission and Council to explore opportunities on an investment agreement with Taiwan, defying thus the one-China policy that President Michel said last Friday that the EU abides by.

In addition, the report touches the sensitive China’s interior issues of Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Tibet and Hong Kong. It also calls on the EU to ensure that current EU legislation effectively bans firms involved in abuses in Xinjiang from operating in the EU. The report also asks to screen 5G and 6G partners and to control for Chinese information dissemination.

The EP’s rapporteur Hilde Vautmans after that September vote rushed to use again the “systemic rival” phrase for China, which had been erroneously used by EU leaders previously and continued with negative language regarding China and its policy.

Retrieving EU’s missing balanced approach

Obviously, the European Parliament has propelled the EU’s negative change of course towards China with strict one-sided criticism that has still remained somewhat unanswered by the European Commission and Council. In the previous Juncker Commission, the European Commission used to play the businessman’s role in trade negotiations and issues that entailed economic repercussions and although listening carefully to the Parliament’s input was rather conservative as the executive arm. In the previous Commission criticism and differences were welcome to be cited and discussed but the EU advocated for the economy, somewhat in line with the famous phrase by strategist James Carville in 1992 “It’s the economy stupid”. That is why the Juncker Commission was so successful overall and nurtured fruitful China-EU relations too.

In a world that has been defined by the dark era of the coronavirus pandemic and other global crises it is important that all concerns of the Parliament are addressed with discussion and negotiation. Nevertheless, the executive arm that the European Commission has should be iron made and look also at what is good for the EU in terms of economy simultaneously. Can the EU turn a blind eye on the best interests of the block with its biggest trading partner?

All in all, yes the European Parliament has an institutional leverage on the EU policy but is it really necessary to stop CAI and impose sanctions to resolve differences and disputes with China or they can all be resolved in the process while the economic relations of the EU and China flourish through CAI?

The China-EU relations have always grown through a balanced perspective and there is nowadays a timely need for the EU to retrieve that soon, in a fragile world of numerous economic and other challenges.

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