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Foreign Policy

Signals from the EU Special Summit

Oct 28, 2020
  • Feng Zhongping

    Vice president, China Institutes for Contemporary Int'l Relations

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Click to read the October issue of China-US Focus Digest

Leaders of the 27 European Union member states gathered in Brussels, Belgium, on Oct. 1 and 2 for a two-day special European Council meeting focusing on the EU’s external relations, including those with China.

Generally speaking with regard to China-EU relations, European leaders expect a successful conclusion of the comprehensive investment agreement before the end of this year. They also hope to see China assume greater responsibility in tackling global challenges, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, and to show increased interest in human rights in China.

In recent years, as China-U.S. gaming has intensified in all fields, the EU’s China policy and the future course of China-EU relations have attracted more attention. What policy signals did EU leaders send at the special summit?

As reflected in their written conclusions after the summit, European leaders were focused on economics and trade when they debated relations with China. Undoubtedly, this is directly related to the importance of those topics in China-EU relations. Both sides are among the world’s largest economies, but more important, with close cooperation over four decades, China and Europe have become each other’s most important trading partners. Total trade volume exceeded $700 billion in 2019. Despite the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the global economy, China-EU trade has maintained its development momentum.

European leaders also pay close attention to economic relations with China because of rising conflicts in recent years over issues of market access and fair competition. So far, both sides have sought to address each other’s key appeals through negotiation and to finalize the bilateral investment agreement negotiations before the end of the year, which will also help reduce tensions.

The special summit shows a clear common understanding within the EU and its member states on the type of relationship they have with China. As America debates heatedly over China and the Donald Trump administration has identified China as a strategic competitor, European countries have been coordinating their positions and redefining relations.

The European Commission’s latest China policy report, released in March last year, reflects the effort in this regard. The report notes a shifted balance between the opportunities and challenges presented by China’s rise and the unprecedented complexity of China-EU relations, which encompass both mutual cooperation and economic and technological competition.

In terms of governance model, the report describes China as the EU’s “systemic rival.” Notably, the new commission, which took office in December last year, has basically adopted all the China-related positions of the previous commission. At the special summit, the leaders more explicitly endorsed the policy approach set out in the March 2019 document and called for further concerted action for its implementation.

They further demanded that the European Commission and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy jointly produce a progress report on the implementation of the EU China policy by March next year.

Looking ahead, China-EU relations will face new and greater challenges in the coming years as the EU’s China policy becomes tougher and more competitive — something that is already explicit in the EU’s approach to human rights in China. The summit publicly expressed “serious concern” on the subject and said so during both the China-EU summit in June and the China-Germany-EU leaders’ meeting in September.

The American factor also matters. If Donald Trump is re-elected in November, the transatlantic partners may continue to drift further away from each other. But if the Democrats win and Biden is in the White House, the atmosphere will improve visibly and the two sides will chime in more easily on China.

It was reported that the leaders also decided to hold a special summit on relations with China in November. They probably want to make final preparations for the signing of the investment agreement with China while also considering any policy stance in light of the American election results.

It should be stressed in the end that both sides still have a strong desire to maintain and strengthen cooperation in areas of common interest, despite the inevitability of future challenges. They have maintained frequent high-level interactions even as the original work plan has been impacted by the pandemic.

The two sides are also actively preparing for an unprecedented summit next year. Green development, the digital economy and global challenges will increasingly be the new driving force for the future.

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