Emmanuel Macron: Can a French alone rejuvenate the EU-China relations?

A picture is worth 1,000 words and even the European Commission’s photographer who had arduous trainings to always endorse Ursula’s looks, couldn’t take a single shot that President Xi doesn’t stand closer to President Macron than her. Emmanuel Macron, Xi Jinping, and Ursula von der Leyen, From left to right, European Union, 2023 Copyright: Source: EC – Audiovisual Service

Last week the trilateral meeting in Beijing between China’s President Xi, French President Macron and the President of the European Commission Von der Leyen was a much anticipated and needed sign of renaissance in the relations of the EU and China, two of the world’s largest economies. It is positive to see that finally sanity seems to start prevailing in Europe who seems to be able just now to see in a clearer way the obvious, the importance that China has on the EU economy.

But Macron and Von der Leyen were not fully aligned on this one, showing once more the distance between Brussels’ unelected European Commission and its member states, aka Europe’s second largest economy. Back in November the leader of Europe’s first economy, Germany’s Chancellor Scholz was the first EU leader to break the “lockdown” by saying to Brussels and the rest – enough with all the US led campaign against China, it’s the economy (you) stupid(s)-. So, he broke the EU promise to only do as Washington says and “decouple” with China and “dared” to visit Beijing to do business with China and lead the way in trying to mend relations with the Asian giant. It is of note that back then Scholz received super strict criticism from Von der Leyen and her peer of breaking the EU anti-China stance.

How big EU hypocrisy can get when a few months later not only France’s Macron came to Beijing to cut numerous trade deals for France but also he brought along the critical Von der Leyen herself, who has been strongly criticised as answering the phone to DC more than often. But still there was a chasm between Emmanuel and Ursula in Beijing. In fact, this was more like a bilateral meeting between China and France’s top men rather than a trilateral one. This was evident right from the beginning, just by seeing how Macron was given a full red carpet parade welcome protocol and nice banquets while Ursula was somewhat like a “civil servant” visiting China in Economy class. Besides, China and the world know well that Brussels tends to become Washington’s protectorate dreaming of the “USE (United States of Europe) while France is a global sovereign player that will never seize to protect French interests and maintain the Hexagon’s historic and future “grandeur de la France”. Contra, there isn’t such thing as the “Grandeur de Bruxelles” to pursue. There isn’t even an “EU stance” in the first place on many grave matters that puzzle the European citizen and the world; only a strong economic coalition of 27 member states who enjoy Frankfurt’s plentiful sharply cut euros via Brussels policies.

The French

Indeed, Macron’s delegation last week in Beijing counted more than 50 “sociétés” who signed a wide array of deals with Chinese counterparts. The French giant Airbus sold to China 160 new aircrafts making a large profit for France’s coffers. There were also deals of the energy company that the French pay hefty bills every month to, EDF, with CGN, which is its Chinese counterpart and also there were collaborations signed in the field of clean energy. Of course Macron didn’t omit to reiterate the West’s call to Beijing to be a peace broker in the war of Ukraine and Russia.

Most importantly, he said: “I don’t have a European mandate, as France has its independent diplomacy – but I’m attached to European coordination”.

On the Taiwan issue Macron tried to draw a line between US and EU recognising at last that the US strongly push the world against China on the Taiwan issue. In particular he stated: “The worst thing would be to think that we Europeans must be followers and adapt ourselves to the American rhythm and a Chinese overreaction”. And he continued: “we must be clear where our views overlap with the US, but whether it’s about Ukraine, relations to China or sanctions, we have a European strategy”. It was positive that the French leader wanted to explore Europe’s own relations with China instead of mimicking DC like many in Brussels like these days, perhaps because it is easier to copy-paste than contemplating a creative synthesis of policies. Though perhaps it is not enough for a French to say it but what is also important is for Brussels to do too.

And the moody

Ursula von Der Leyen on the other hand, the representative of the Brussels conglomerate in Berlaymont, who received less attention during her stay in Beijing, was not in the mood, again. She spoke about the EU-China trade being unbalanced, accusing Beijing of “taking advantage” of EU companies. She stressed: “I conveyed that European Union businesses in China are concerned by unfair practices in some sectors under practices that impede their access to the Chinese market”. If this doesn’t mimic US trade statements on China, then words have just lost heir meaning.

And then she reproduced the US rumour that hasn’t been confirmed, as it happens with many US rumours historically, that China will try to sell arms to Russia. She mentioned on the issue: “We […] count on China not to provide any military equipment, directly or indirectly, to Russia, because we all know arming the aggressor would be against international law”… “This would indeed significantly harm the relationship between the European Union and China,” Of course, what she didn’t mention on the issue is that in the imaginary scenario that something like that would happen, then the core warmongering US policy that started selling arms to poor Ukraine would be hurt.

Also, Von der Leyen didn’t omit to refer to the other item of the EU agenda, human rights: “I expressed our deep concerns about the deterioration of the human rights situation in China”. She continued: “We wish to solve the current issues through dialogue … derisking through diplomacy.” She thus framed now the EU’s stance as “de-risking” in lieu of the US anti-China frame of “de-coupling”. But looking at semantics, why does the word need to be similar and start with “de” in the first place ? Why can’t the EU come up with a different word that doesn’t sound like the American one? Is English of Shakeshpeare that poor a language? Of course, it might seem to be a creative word game for an EU communications officer but it can also show the mania to not go far from the US way of thinking/wording.

China’s welcome

The Chinese President welcomed the European delegation that can signal a restart in the China-EU relations. “I am glad that we share many common or similar views on China-France, China-EU relations as well as many international and regional issues, reflecting the high level and strategic nature of China-French relations”, Xi said. He continued: “China is prepared to work with the EU to set the right direction and tone for China-EU ties, and revitalize mutually-beneficial cooperation in various fields, thus injecting fresh impetus into China-EU relations …In a complex and volatile world, China and the EU need to stay committed to dialogue and cooperation, uphold world peace and stability, foster common development and prosperity, and address global challenges together”.

China’s President added: “China and the EU need to step up communication to establish the correct mutual understanding, and to avoid misinterpretation or misjudgment”…“We hope the European Commission will play a constructive role”. He also said: “I’m very glad we share many identical or similar views on Sino-French, Sino-EU, international and regional issues”. And of course, China’s leader didn’t omit to refer to the standard US doctrine that teaches democracy to the world through guns, by stating that “Spreading the so-called ‘democracy versus authoritarianism’ would only bring division and confrontation to the world”.

Chinese Premier Li had to say on the other hand: “China has always viewed and developed its relations with the EU from a strategic and long-term perspective, supported European integration and strategic independence, and supported the EU in playing an active role in international affairs…The two sides should remain committed to a comprehensive strategic partnership, uphold mutual respect and win-win cooperation, promote the sound and steady growth of China-EU relations, and inject more confidence and impetus into world peace and prosperity…China is committed to deepening reform and opening-up and promoting high-quality development, which will provide broad space for the development of companies from Europe and other countries.”

In addition, China’s top diplomat in the EU now, Ambassador Fu Kong, said on the visit: “The leaders of China and the EU have held frequent meetings recently, showing to the world the desire of both sides to strengthen friendly cooperation and promote the development of bilateral relations. It is the correct strategic choice and the common expectation of the international community for the two sides to uphold a correct understanding of each other, deepen open cooperation and jointly respond to challenges.China-EU relations are built on a solid foundation. As the world’s two major forces, markets and civilizations, China and the EU have withstood the test of times in their decades-long bilateral relations. Their relations have demonstrated strong resilience and potential based on a solid foundation of generally favorable public opinion, broad common interests and similar strategic demands. As President Xi Jinping has said, there are no fundamental strategic differences or conflicts between China and the EU. Their cooperation far outweighs competition, and their consensuses are far greater than their differences. This has also been my deepest feeling of China-EU relations since I took office four months ago, and it is also the general consensus of people with insight in Europe… This year marks the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the China-EU comprehensive strategic partnership.”

The way forward

The way forward will possibly entail first of all a phone call of Joe to Ursula complaining that she wasn’t moody enough in Beijing and try to explore new ways and tactics to hurt China. Surely, the Americanised world didn’t enjoy too much the fact that the EU slowly seems to change its stance toward Beijing. But alright, Macron, Scholz and others will always care about their economies and not the EU bureaucracy of Brussels and this is fair enough. Especially in crisis times that we live in one should be blind not to see how important is China for the global economic stability and peace. And both France and Germany know that it is their interests that they should pursue in lieu of Washington that will always try to usurp more of the global economy in the name of “transatlantic partnership” and “democracy teaching”. But if “Do it like DC” ends up melting the French and German economy, then the problems of Macron and Scholz can and will never be solved by old Joe’s administration, unless a big opportunity ever comes up for hefty IMF loans with high interest rates.

So, it’s good that sanity prevailed and Macron went to Beijing to shake hands and do business. Perhaps these days it is naive even to believe in a coordinated EU stance which is pro-business with China. Perhaps it is pragmatic to believe that Brussels bureaucracy will keep echoing DC because it is just easier for them to finish office hours and go home to get some sleep. Though, with the EU’s big economies one after the other breaking the “anti-China barrier” by resuming and expanding business with Beijing, Brussels’ Von der Leyens will have to soften up eventually, because in the end of the day it is euros that make the EU go round.

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