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Foreign Policy

Understand the EU Before Engaging

Oct 07, 2021
  • Feng Zhongping

    Director, Institute of European Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS)

A lot has happened between China and Europe in the last six months. On one hand, high-level exchanges have been maintained via video and telephone calls. On the other, relations have been seriously challenged.

The approval process for the China-EU Comprehensive Agreement on Investment has been frozen since an exchange of sanctions in March. U.S. President Joe Biden visited Europe in June and the two sides increased coordination of their China policies. The following month saw the EU decision to launch its version of a global connectivity strategy. In August, China recalled its ambassador to Lithuania and demanded the country do the same. In September, the Report on a New EU-China Strategy was passed by the European Parliament and a new Indo-Pacific strategy was announced.

These policy papers and strategic reports have drawn extensive attention to the direction of China-EU relations. But perhaps a more important question is this: How should China deal with Europe?

The EU has a complex power structure, with 27 member governments and supranational institutions. To deal with the EU, it is essential to understand their respective mandates and functions and be aware that every major EU decision is the result of close interaction and intense gaming among member states and between member states and the supranational institutions. As one of those institutions, the Parliament has been highly visible, with frequent adoption of China-related resolutions.

What is the right approach for us? On the one hand, we know that many of the body’s resolutions have no legal effect. On the other, quite a number of bills come into force only after being approved by the European Parliament. A case in point is the aforementioned CAI. The international procurement instrument, which has attracted wide attention from Chinese companies, was introduced by the European Commission many years ago, but taking effect requires the approval of the European Parliament.

Not only is the European power structure complex and difficult to understand but its external relations have also been frequently adjusted against the backdrop of great changes in the world today, dazzling the eyes of many. Analysts will have to think carefully and avoid drawing simplistic either/or conclusions.

For European countries, relations with the U.S. are undoubtedly the most important. But they are becoming increasingly complex. On one hand, many still have a military alliance relationship that was formed during the Cold War. Instead of being disbanded upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO, a product of the Cold War, continues to recruit and expand. At present, 21 of the 27 EU member states are NATO members.

They sent troops to Afghanistan after 911; NATO holds a leaders’ summit every year; and they conduct a variety of joint military exercises. All of these activities tell of the authenticity of the alliance relationship. For this reason, it has often been said that the U.S. and Europe are a family.

On the other hand, as America’s global strategy pivots eastward and the U.S. government trumpets and acts in the pursuit of “America first,” internal conflicts have emerged one after another. Under Donald Trump, the U.S. refused to engage in strategic consultations with its European allies, and French President Emmanuel Macron declared NATO “brain dead.”

While the U.S. increasingly sees China as a strategic competitor, Europe has been trying to avoid an either-or choice between the two. It has managed to maintain its alliance with the U.S., while not giving up economic ties with China. That is unlikely to change radically in the next few years. Europe will continue to tie its interests to those of the U.S. through the transatlantic alliance, even as it works with China in areas of common interests.

For the world, this means that many of Europe’s messages may be unclear or even self-contradictory. A fuller and deeper understanding of the U.S.-EU relationship is necessary, and that understanding must not be influenced by one thing or another. The recent AUKUS submarine deal and the earlier U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan caused stirs in France and other European countries. We saw a greater determination on the part of Europe to pursue strategic autonomy. On the other hand, the very nature of the U.S.-EU alliance has not changed. The European global connectivity strategy and Indo-Pacific strategy did showcase increased support for competition with China, but it’s still too early to conclude that Europe is now on the American side or that it has chosen confrontation with China.

In recent years, China-EU relations have been plagued by adjustments and changes in European perceptions and policies toward China. Beijing has become a complicated combination of partner, economic competitor and systemic rival in the eyes of Europe. As a result, the relatively simple and stable ties of the past have been put on various collision courses. In addition, changes in relations with China are related to the European effort to redefine its international role amid major changes in the world. The EU’s desire to grow beyond being a mere trade and economic actor and become a major geopolitical power has been growing by the day. It hopes to shake off its dependence on another power and, as EU High Representative Josep Borrell put it, “to speak and act like other powers internationally.” Above all, to deal with Europe effectively China needs to understand the complex changes in the EU and its external relations.

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