Is 2020 the “China Year” for the EU?

EU-China relations are a very timely and indeed strategic conversation, since our relation with China is a strategic one. If we look back a little bit to 2019, we can remember that we had some visions about 2020, which will be the “China Year” for the European Union. As you remember we had an important political commitment on both sides, that the negotiations on the investment agreement will come to a conclusion in 2020. We had scheduled two major EU-China Summits for 2020 and we had high hopes for the evolution of those relations, in the context that 2019 was also the year of the EU-U.S. trade war, or more generally, when we saw some elements of trade war of President Trump towards not only China but also other partners, such as the WTO and even the European Union. China of course is for us, and will continue to be, an essential partner in several global dialogues, for example the Paris Agreement and overall on climate action. China is also a negotiating partner and I just mentioned the investment agreement, but we also have to remember the political dialogue and the negotiations on visa regime and other elements of this bilateral negotiation framework. Furthermore, China is an economic competitor and of course we see it more and more as a very assertive systemic rival of the European Union.

This was the end of 2019, we had high hopes, then 2020 came and along with it the Coronavirus pandemic. We experienced the lockdown of our societies, we experienced a brutal stop for a huge number of economic sectors throughout all the global economies and the question comes naturally, can 2020 be still the “China Year” for the European Union? In many ways, I think yes. “China Year” is still on the table for us, for the European Union. Equally of course, it is not only this, it is maybe also a “United States Year”, because in the context of the global volatilities, our transatlantic relation is very, very important. I would say maybe even more important than any other time in the last decade. Beyond this, one also sees that a new competition has surfaced, namely the competition of who will emerge firstly from the lock-down. We will see which economy can be restarted first. Several actors are involved here, but I think that the U.S., China and our European Union are the main actors in this new competition. Many political and economic analyses suggest lately that EU-China and EU-U.S. relations are a binary choice for the European Union. Certainly, we are so essentially tied with the U.S., in our transatlantic security, trade, economic stability and other relations, that some say we should fully align with the United States and turn away, or even turn against China. This is an opinion that I often met in the last weeks, and I would strongly oppose such a binary choice, such a huge simplification. We, the European Union have to continue building our global relations and our relations with these two important partners, China and the U.S., on the two pillars that are always at the fundament of our external action; the best interests of the European Union is the first pillar, and the second pillar would be our fundamental values, we call them global values, that stand even at the foundation of the European Union. So, our interests and our values, that would be our constant point of reference.

To synthesise these remarks I would formulate five points about the recovery after the coronavirus crisis. Of course, these are in relation to our EU- China trade and economic relations, first of all.

  1. We have to reduce our vulnerabilities and our dependencies which have been very clearly exposed by the coronavirus crisis.
  2. Secondly, we have to have a discussion about the strategic sectors of the European economy; we have to better define those strategic sectors and then we have to build on the diversification of our supply chains.
  3. Thirdly, I think that what was true in 2019, is also true in 2020; we have to enforce the level playing field. And so this brings me to point number four:
  4. We have to strengthen the EU Trade Defence Instruments. We have to build up a new generation of 21st century Trade Defence Instruments of the European Union in order to give us the right tools to enforce the level playing field, towards all our global partners but of course also towards China.
  5. Lastly, my 5th point is that of course, the EU has to remain committed to the WTO. We have to search for new allies in our quest to strengthen and modernise the WTO.

On the question about the ‘one voice’ of Europe and its coherence; I would like to make a comment. The EU is huge, powerful and diverse, and of course ‘one European voice’ is very difficult since in the European Union we are democracies, and democracy is about debate and about slightly diverging interests or slightly diverging positions. We did not even discuss the 17+1 cooperation, so of course we have a huge problem in having ‘one voice’. We should try to have it. China, on the other hand, is even bigger, increasingly powerful and is also diverse, but it is a one-party-state, so ‘one voice’ is not so difficult for China. Coherence however is more difficult, and we can see that the ‘one Chinese voice’ is not always coherent with itself; just consider here Chinese rhetoric in the last two months.

To conclude, I stress that we should continue our dialogue, without abandoning our values or our interests, and be more realistic in our engagements with China.

These were the remarks of MEP Iuliu Winkler, Vice-Chair of the International Trade Committee in the European Parliament and First Vice-President at SME Europe of the EPP, during a webinar entitled “Covid-19 & EU-China Relations – a Strategic Conversation”.