Europe and China were on the right track for a reset. The coronavirus has changed all that

A summit hosted by Germany's Angela Merkel with EU leaders and China's Xi Jinping is scheduled to take place in Leipzig this September.

At a flagship summit in September, the two men are expected to take an important step in their economic and strategic relations. At least that was the plan.

China’s response to Covid-19 left a bitter taste in the mouths of European officials. Draconian repressions on its own citizens to propagation charges disinformation in Europe, this crisis has reminded us that closer engagement with China involves risks.

As things stand, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is scheduled to reunite EU leaders and Chinese President Xi Jinping in the German city of Leipzig on September 14.

German diplomats say the location was chosen because of the historic relations of former East Germany with China. They say that Merkel, who last presided over the Presidency of the Council of the EU, was personally invested in the success of the summit.

Bringing China closer to European values ​​in human rights, climate change and multilateralism is the kind of thing that leaders inherit. And while the Leipzig summit is far from a defining moment in Europe’s relations with China, this level of fanfare has a lot to do.

However, there is a real feeling in Brussels that the pandemic has led to a resumption of European thinking on China.

“I think the coronavirus has been a necessary reminder for many EU states, even if Chinese money is attractive, it is also a systemic rival,” said Steven Blockmans, foreign policy chief at EU at the Center for European Policy Studies.

Blockmans refers to a press release issued by the European Commission in March 2019, in which it described China as “a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance”.

In the context of the coronavirus, this model of Chinese government concerns EU officials.

Last month, the European External Action Service released a report on misinformation about Covid-19, declaring that “official and state-supported sources from various governments, including Russia and – to a lesser extent – China, have continued to target conspiracy and misinformation largely.”
Few days ago, Politico Europe publication an extract from what he said was a draft, which explicitly accused China of carrying out “a global disinformation campaign to divert the blame for the outbreak of the pandemic and improve its international image”.

A spokesperson for EU foreign and security policy told CNN that the document cited by Politico was in fact not a draft report.

Whatever the truth, it is clear that some in Brussels are very concerned about the behavior of China.

“It’s about seeing which (political) system is most effective in dealing with the virus. Is it a system that allows personal freedoms? Or is it a one-party autocracy where you can impose measures without too much worry, “said an EU official working through external affairs.

This lack of confidence seems to be imposed in Brussels. Over the weekend, the European Commissioner for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, said in an interview with the French newspaper Le Dimanche that Europe had been “naive” in its relations with China. He went on to recognize that China has a “different understanding of the international order”.

So where does all of this leave what was supposed to be the year that China and Europe finally found themselves on the same page?

At the time of writing, very few believe that the Leipzig summit will be as Merkel and Cie first imagined it.

In practical terms, the virus has prevented the two parties from meeting physically. European diplomats point out that in the Council of the EU building there are normally around 30 meeting rooms for representatives of the 27 member states to meet and discuss sensitive issues. “There are now only ten that can guarantee social distancing”, said a diplomat.

Velina Tchakarova, head of the institute at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy, predicts that “China’s actions during and after Covid-19 would lead to further disagreements and fragmentation within European countries [on] how to settle relations with Beijing. ”

She points to disagreements on issues such as allowing Chinese companies to build 5G networks and EU-level decisions on who can and cannot invest in member states.

For these reasons and more, most believe that the Leipzig summit will be completely overshadowed by the coronavirus.

However, despite these low levels of confidence and the obvious recognition that China is a “systemic rival”, it seems likely that the EU will try to put things back on track.

“It will make us rethink, but at the same time, we cannot move away from China,” an EU diplomat told CNN. “All of our savings depend on supply chains that go back to Wuhan and beyond. We have always said that no one would be warned not to trade with them. So this problem will always be there.”

Another German diplomat defended continuing, saying that “China’s influence is increasing, but it is not unilateral. Obviously, China also needs Europe”. This, officials in Brussels hope, means that it can put pressure on China on things like its stance on human rights.

For the EU, engagement with China is not limited to money. “Increasing engagement with China gives the EU a chance to double its strategic priorities,” said Blockmans, referring to the priority of EU foreign policy to balance relations with China and the United States. United, giving the EU more autonomy on the world stage. .

However, concerns about China’s transparency during the pandemic have reminded us clearly of what engagement with China really means.

On the one hand, the EU’s calculation on China has not changed: it is always desirable not to be crushed between the two big superpowers, China and America. On the other hand, recent history shows that China is an unreliable partner that divides opinions between the EU member states.

Sooner or later, Europe will have to weigh these two realities and decide exactly how much America’s diplomatic independence is really worth.


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