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Continuity Marks EU-China Relations

By Fraser Cameron

17 July 2019

The new European Union leadership is unlikely to change the current trend in EU-China relations, which are based on a pragmatic mix of cooperation and competition. At the same time, the leaders will have to give priority to a number of pressing domestic concerns.

Ursula von der Leyen, the German defense minister nominated to head the European Commission, has been a senior member of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Cabinet for over a decade, and has visited China on numerous occasions. Last year, she delivered a speech at the People's Liberation Army military academy, setting out her views on the importance of taking a holistic view of security policy. She also gave an interview, saying China was "clever" in pursuing its interests toward the EU arguing that the EU had to ensure it was united in dealing with China, Russia and the United States.

Charles Michel, the outgoing Belgian prime minister who takes over as president of the European Council, has considerable experience in finding compromises between the competing political parties in his own country. This political skill was evident in another Belgian, Herman van Rompuy, who was the first president of the European Council. Michel has hosted Premier Li Keqiang no less than three times in the past four years as he has sought to develop closer ties between Belgium and China.

Continuity marks EU-China relations

Josep Borrel, the proposed new EU foreign policy chief, is an experienced politician, too, who was president of the European Parliament from 2004 to 2007. In an interview before attending the Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in April, he said that China's flagship initiative was to be welcomed as long as key principles such as sustainability were respected.

Referring to the European Commission paper that talked of China as a "systemic rival" in some areas, he said that "good friends are always able to talk frankly about their disagreements and reach compromises at the negotiating table". Borrel is more likely to have a troubled relationship with Washington as he has been critical of the US' withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and its overall approach to the Middle East.

Christine Lagarde, who after being nominated to head the European Central Bank temporarily relinquished her functions as International Monetary Fund managing director, has been a frequent visitor to China, encouraging Beijing to play a more prominent role in global governance structures. She has been an outspoken critic of the trade war the US has launched against China, describing it as a "self-inflicted wound" damaging the world economy. And she has asked China to reduce industrial subsidies and be more transparent in its loans to developing countries, two key issues for the EU.

The four nominees for the EU's top jobs form a balanced and highly experienced team. For the first time there will be a woman at the top of the EU's executive and the ECB. The nominees for the European Commission, and foreign policy chief, now have to be approved by the European Parliament, probably next week.

Assuming von der Leyen secures a majority, she will then have to work with EU member states to fill the various portfolios. Already, there is much lobbying to secure the most influential positions such as trade, competition, agriculture and economic policy. Frans Timmermans, the Dutch socialist, and Margrethe Verstager, the Danish liberal, are already assured of the top vice-president roles.

There is also much debate on a possible restructuring of the European Commission to achieve more policy coordination including toward China. As such, there could be a standing task force just for the EU's policy toward China.

But apart from China and other foreign policy issues continuing to be of concern, the new EU leadership will also be confronted with pressing domestic issues that will take priority. These include seeking to improve links between the EU institutions and citizens.

The perceived remoteness of the institutions and their indifference to the lives of ordinary Europeans were used by the populists in their campaign for the European Parliament. The results of the May elections produced a fragmented parliament, which have made coalition building more difficult than in the past. For example, EU leaders will now have to take into account the growing influence of the Greens, especially on climate change.

Other domestic issues include reform of the eurozone, something that French President Emmanuel Macron has pushed for without much response from other partners. And although the number of refugees has dropped, there is still no EU-wide resolution on how to divide up the migrants who do make it to European countries.

Finally, there is Brexit. The United Kingdom is due to leave the EU on Oct 31, the day before the new European Commission takes office. If the UK leaves without a deal, as the likely new prime minister, Boris Johnson, has threatened, then there will be chaos on both sides of the channel. But with or without a deal, the UK will have to negotiate new arrangements with the EU covering every policy field. This will be time-consuming and divert EU efforts to deal with other priorities, including China.

Fraser Cameron is Director of the EU-Asia Centre. This op-ed was also published by the China Daily.