Despite recent assertions of the Central Bank of the Republic of China, Brexit is bad news for Taiwan. The United Kingdom has been among the most ardent supporters of Taiwan within the European Union and arguably the most dedicated advocate of the island nation’s interests within the so called “old EU member states” – the 15 countries that had been in the EU prior to 2004.
Taiwan is not recognized by any of the member states of the European Union and the Holy See remains Taipei’s sole diplomatic ally on the Old Continent. In consequence, the EU itself does not recognize Taiwan’s statehood, as it remains adherent to its one-China policy. The EU’s diplomatic presence on the Island is disguised under the name of the European Economic and Trade Office and Taipei’s Representative Office in the EU avoids using the name “embassy.” Taiwan’s position in regard to China is further diminished by Taipei’s limited access to EU institutions, with the exception of the European Parliament. British Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have demonstrated fervent support for Taipei’s case over the years, but this era is about to come to an end.
Even though the European Commission and the Council are far more important than the EU’s only democratically elected chamber, the political nature of the parliament and its growing ambitions have been highly beneficial for Taiwan. The European Parliament’s reports and resolutions paved the way for a number of significant milestones, which enabled maintaining working contacts between Brussels and Taipei. Among them was the parliament’s support for the establishment of the aforementioned European Economic and Trade Office (founded in 2003), its support for Taiwan’s GATT and WTO membership, which resulted in Taiwan’s admission in 2002, and the ongoing battle for Taiwan’s free trade agreement/bilateral investment agreement with the European Union.
An FTA/BIA could potentially diversify Taiwan’s international trade exchanges and thus ease the island nation’s overreliance on trading with China. So far, Beijing has been able to curb Taiwan’s ambitions. Nevertheless, in 2015, following more than two decades of appeals from Members of the European Parliament, the European Commission acknowledged its willingness to commence relevant talks with Taipei.
British Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have played a significant role in these developments and their withdrawal will weaken Taiwan’s position in the European Parliament – and by extension the EU – for two reasons. First, the British delegation, the most Taiwan-friendly of the four largest national delegations in the EP, will cease to exist. Second, the British Conservatives make up the bedrock of what is currently the third largest political group in the EP (out of eight): the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR). The ECR group will most likely survive Brexit and will manage to fulfill the minimum requirements necessary for a political group to be formed (25 MEPs from seven different countries). However, its significance will be greatly diminished with the outflow of 21 British members (out of ECR’s total 74 members). Given that the ECR has been the most Taiwan-supportive political force in the European Parliament, the troubles awaiting the group should be cause for concern in Taiwan.
Disappearance of British MEPs
Like other EU institutions, the European Parliament does not maintain official diplomatic relations with Taiwan and is technically adherent to the one-China policy. As such, Taiwan is the world’s only developed economy to which there is no official EP delegation. To deal with this, an informal body – the European Parliament-Taiwan Friendship Group (EPTFG) – was established in 1991. In addition to playing the role of a de facto EP delegation to Taiwan, it has been actively advocating Taiwan’s interests in the European Union. It has served as a platform for cooperation between MEPs, as well as a lobbying body, which pushed the European Commission to adopt a more Taiwan-friendly position.
During the 2009-2014 term of the EP, close to 90 MEPs were actively involved in the works of the friendship group, which made it the second largest state-lobbying organization in the European Parliament (after the pro-Israeli group). The average ratio of membership in the EP-Taiwan group for national delegations was 12.4 percent. New member states such as Slovakia, Poland and Bulgaria were represented by as many as 30 percent of their MEPs. The United Kingdom was the only old member state to score above average, at 13.8 percent. This means that with the demise of the British MEPs, the influence of the European Parliament-Taiwan Friendship Group will most likely diminish. Germany and Spain will be the only large old member states (with a 50+ strong delegation of MEPs) to have a relatively high membership ratio in the pro-Taiwan group (around 10 percent in both cases). The remaining two large Western European countries – France and Italy – are at the very bottom of the pack with 5.5 percent and 6.9 percent of their MEPs involved in the activities of the EPTFG, respectively.
The deepening lack of geographical balance in the friendship group is not the only issue that Brexit will create. Some of the most prominent and dedicated members of the EPTFG will be leaving Parliament. Among them is Charles Tannock, the EP-Taiwan Friendship Group’s former chairman and – arguably – one of the very few Members of the European Parliament with a truly deep understanding of Taiwan’s political and economic developments. Tannock is also the ECR’s Foreign Affairs Spokesman.
Following the 2014 European Elections, the ECR group expanded thanks to the good electoral results of its member parties, most notably Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) and the Alternative for Germany (AfD). The group’s size was not its only strength, however, as two of its largest member parties (from the U.K. and Poland) were either in power at the time of European elections (the U.K.) or won national elections shortly after (Poland).
With Brexit in progress, the group can be expected to lose its newfound credibility with the Tories being blamed for the result of the referendum, as demonstrated during the recent EP debate, where MEPs from other political groups did not even try to hide their contempt for the British Conservatives and their allies. With all this in mind, it is safe to assume that finding cross-party support for the ECR’s initiatives will face difficulties.
This is – again – bad news for Taiwan. The ECR has been by far the most Taiwan-friendly political group in the European Parliament, with almost 30 percent of its members being actively involved in the works of the EP-Taiwan Friendship Group during the 2009-2014 term. In the case of the largest and most influential European People’s Party (EPP – 215 MEPs), as well as the Liberals (ALDE – 70 MEPs) the number was only 15 percent, whereas in the case of the second largest political group (the Socialists – 189 MEPs) – 6.5 percent.
Moreover, many of the ECR’s national delegations (some of them “single member delegations”) are considered shady by the European political mainstream. After the Brits have left the ECR’s ranks, Poland’s Law and Justice will be its only meaningful political force. In addition, following the upcoming European Elections, the ECR may be forced to attract new members to fulfill the requirements set up for political groups. At this moment, the only potential candidates are the Members of the European Parliament from the marginalized Europe for Freedom and Democracy, led by the United Kingdom’s Independence Party (UKIP) and the even more marginalized Europe of Nations and Freedom, led by Marine Le Pen.
The EFD might implode with Nigel Farage’s and his party colleagues’ long awaited way back home. The problem is, what will be left of the EFD are mostly right-wing radicals and their potential influx into the ranks of the ECR would not be good for the image of the most Taiwan-friendly political group. Interestingly enough, officials from Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs I have spoken with assured me that Taiwan did not seek the support of the EP’s radical left (the Communists) or its radical right (EFD) in order to avoid being guilty by association.
Despite being prone to stir up trouble in the EU, the Tory party has always been considered a necessary and moderate partner. The ECR group’s relatively positive image was therefore dependent on the British leadership of the group. This situation was highly beneficial for Taiwan, due to the ECR’s ardent support for the island nation’s interests. Unfortunately for Taipei, with the demise of the British Conservatives, the group will mostly comprise the European political second and third league.
Jakub Piasecki is a former Policy Advisor on China at the European Parliament, where he was involved in the works of the European Parliament-Taiwan Friendship Group. He is currently affiliated with the Poland-Asia Research Center (CSPA) and resides in Taipei. Twitter: @piasecki82