China Power

Who Speaks for Europe?

The lack of a coherent EU voice is going to hamper efforts at boosting China ties.

The European Union is China’s biggest trade partner, while China is the EU’s second largest trading partner and also its biggest source of imports. Yet this interdependence hasn’t in recent years translated into political respect from China for the 27-member political bloc.

It’s not just the various economic tensions between the two (numerous anti-dumping actions by the EU have been met this month with an anti-dumping inquiry by China into European potato flour), nor the usual spats over human rights issues (particularly Tibet, which prompted China to truculently cancel a summit in December 2008 after French President Nicolas Sarkozy met with the Dalai Lama).

There are also deep divisions over climate change—an issue dear to the hearts of many EU leaders, many of whom were doubtless disappointed by the wrangling in Copenhagen—and frustration among Chinese policymakers over an EU arms embargo that followed the Tiananmen Square incident.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso will undoubtedly be broaching some of these issues when he meets Chinese Premier Wen Jiabo in Beijing today. But the very fact that Barroso is in Beijing meeting Wen raises an interesting question about who is really in charge of representing the EU to China. Is it Barroso? Or European Council President Herman van Rompuy? Or should it be Catherine Ashton, High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy of the European Union?

The fact that there’s no clear answer to this question is almost certainly part of the reason the EU has failed to earn either Chinese respect or understanding. The EU missed a golden opportunity to have a clearer foreign policy voice when it opted not to pick a heavy hitter like former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Doing so may have meant some countries swallowing their pride (or holding their nose). But it would have provided the bloc with a much-needed traffic stopper who could have command automatic attention overseas, including in Beijing.

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The lack of clarity in EU foreign policy has undoubtedly left China, as with many other nations, a little confused and unsure of who exactly to call when it picks up the phone to Europe. The consequence is reports like one from the European Council on Foreign Relations last year, which argued:

‘The already modest leverage that EU member states have over China, collectively and individually, is weakened further by the disunity in their individual approaches.

‘The result is an EU policy towards China that can be described as “unconditional engagement”: a policy that gives China access to all the economic and other benefits of cooperation with Europe while asking for little in return. Most EU Member States are aware that this strategy, enshrined in a trade and cooperation agreement concluded back in 1985, is showing its age. They acknowledge its existence, largely ignore it in practice, and pursue their own, often conflicting national approaches towards China. Some challenge China on trade, others on politics, some on both, and some on neither.’