EU’s attempts to adopt a bloc-wide policy on Beijing are not proving easy

Andrew Hammond

‘‘Who do I call if I want to call Europe?’’ is a question said to have been asked in the 1970s by Henry Kissinger, the former US secretary of state who died on Wednesday at the age of 100. This famous query has often been repeated over the years to highlight the lack of a unified foreign policy across a European bloc that currently comprises 27 countries with differing interests.
The question implies that there could be significant potential benefits for other foreign powers if there was a single interlocutor within the EU that they could speak to. However, an increasingly common criticism of China within Europe is that Beijing wants the opposite; in other words, it favors a splintered EU so that it can attempt to “divide and rule” across the continent. This is one reason why the latest annual EU-China summit, part of process that has been taking place for about a quarter of century, will be more important than most. There has been an undeniable chill in relations, as a result of which the two sides might fail even to issue a joint statement at the conclusion of the summit on Thursday and Friday.
The backdrop to this is the attempts by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and other top EU officials, including High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell, to enforce a common bloc-wide stance on China. But despite their attempts to enhance unity on the issue of Beijing, Brussels is struggling to find common ground across the 27 member states. Worse still, top EU officials have become increasingly concerned in recent years about whether the nature of China’s external interventions in Europe represent a “divide and rule” strategy designed to undermine the continent’s collective interests. The context for this is the fact that Europe is becoming an increasingly important foreign policy focal point for China and, until the pandemic, Beijing’s influence had generally grown across much of the continent.
This can be seen in Eastern and Central Europe, where China regularly holds “16+1” summits with the aim of enhancing and expanding cooperation in the fields of investment, transport, finance, science, education and culture.
There are also examples in key Western European states, such as Italy, which was the first, and so far only, G7 country to endorse Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. Underlying this, it is becoming increasingly clear that China is tailoring its approach around the bespoke needs of individual states or subgroups of countries, such as the 16+1 grouping in Eastern Europe. Furthermore, the overtures to Europe come with a clear quid pro quo, as highlighted by Italy’s decision to sign up to the BRI in return for Chinese investment.
In the aftermath of the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Brussels has therefore sought to bring the bloc more closely together around a stronger policy on China. Von der Leyen and Borrell have led the way on this, even though the former does not have a formal foreign policy role. Most recently, both of them have made hard-hitting speeches. Von der Leyen said last month that “we must recognize that there is an explicit element of rivalry in our relationship. We must also recognize that China’s views on the global security architecture are not by default aligned with ours.”
The direction in which the EU’s policy on China is currently heading is clearly more hawkish. Even on issues in which breakthroughs have been made in recent years, such as the bilateral Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, the “long grass” of Brussels has prevented ratification of the deal by the European Parliament as a result of concerns about Beijing’s behavior. A central challenge facing von der Leyen and Borrell is therefore the splits within the 27-member bloc on the issue of Beijing. It is overly simplistic to say there is an East-West dichotomy on the continent, in part because Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban favors strong ties with China.
Nonetheless, clear differences are evident between the more hawkish Eastern European nations, such as Poland, the Czech Republic and Lithuania, and Western counterparts such as France, Spain and Germany, which do much more business with China. Perceptions of a divided Europe have also been publicly highlighted by several Chinese officials. Fu Cong, the ambassador to the EU, cast doubts, for example, on whether all member states support the agenda of Borrell and von der Leyen, saying that “Europe has not formulated a coherent policy toward China” and that it looks like “people quarreling with each other.”
The positions taken by Western European nations such as Germany and France are particularly problematic for Brussels, given that both countries want to continue with extensive economic engagements with China.
The longstanding, deep business ties between Berlin and Beijing are well-documented, so it is no surprise that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is more equivocal on the matter than von der Leyen and Borrell. What has surprised many people, however, is the relatively soft stance taken by French President Emmanuel Macron, which was evident during a joint visit to Beijing with von der Leyen this year. Remarkably, he took a business delegation that was estimated to include about 50 people. This was about four times larger than a similar delegation that accompanied Scholz on a visit to China last year.
Perhaps most surprising of all was the fact that Macron moved significantly away from the prior French position on Taiwan. So while von der Leyen was asserting during the trip that “stability in the Taiwan Strait is of paramount importance” and the “threat of use of force to change the status quo is unacceptable,” Macron described Taiwan as a “crisis that is not ours” and suggested that Europeans should stay out of the issue and not be “America’s followers.” All of this together highlights the challenging backdrop to this week’s bilateral summit. Not only are overall EU relations frozen, they could yet go from bad to worse in the year ahead.