“Germany wholeheartedly wishes the unification of Europe,” retorted Chancellor Konrad Adenauer in 1950 to American criticism on European integration. The world has drastically changed since then. Germany’s appetite for further European unification is at an all-time low and the United States has lost the political capital to criticize others. But European unity is more important than ever before: China with its state-led economic model represents an attractive narrative to fill the void left by European member states.
“This has long since ceased to be merely a question of economics. China is developing a comprehensive systemic alternative to the Western model that, in contrast to our own, is not founded on freedom, democracy and individual human rights.” Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s Ex-Foreign Minister, got to the heart of the matter.
The BRI, China’s flagship foreign policy program, and the 17+1 format, an initiative to promote business relations between China and Central and Eastern Europe, are not so much economic challenges as ideological provocations. The Memorandum of Understanding between Italy and China to deepen economic and cultural ties is more form than substance. The Greek Port of Piraeus continuously stumbles over popular and parliamentary resistance. And Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s proposal to create a Danube-Oder-Elbe canal in Czech Republic will most likely never materialise.
Thanks to the European Union’s myriad regulations, tough environmental standards and fierce public competition for contracts, Chinese firms are struggling to compete in the European investment environment. The availability of funding from European institutions also makes Chinese loans less attractive. Unsurprisingly, Beijing channels most of its investments into the Non-European members of the 17+1 format (Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Albania, Montenegro and Northern Macedonia); in other words into countries with weak rule of law and elevated political corruption.
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Irrespective of China’s economic impact, the European Union cannot discount the fact that China has managed to act unilaterally under the facade of multilateralism in Europe. Its nebulous presence suggests that our European way of life based on democratic values, individual freedoms and free markets is a hindrance and not a blessing. Brussels has in response scrutinised Chinese FDI and sensitive mergers, has demanded reciprocal market access and fair competition with state-owned enterprises (SOEs), and has finally called out Beijing’s unethical use of surveillance technology and persecution of ethnic minorities. Although such policy measures are effective and long overdue, they are in themselves not enough to protect Europe from China’s influence.
European unity is framed around the single market and naturally policy is designed to protect and advance this narrow goal. We have clearly started seeing the limits of this framework during the pandemic. The Corona recovery fund, after being significantly watered down by the “frugal four,” is at the whims of chauvinistic Poland and Hungary, and cooperation amongst member states is contradictory at best and protectionist at worst. Border closures, export bans, and unnecessary equipment shortages are in my dictionary not signs of unity.
They are clear signs that the European single market alone–without broader political unity–is insufficient to manage a pandemic effectively; just as it will be insufficient to address China decisively. While recent public opinion polls show that most Europeans view China’s effect on democracy unfavorably, they also suggest that Eastern and Southern Europe are slightly more sympathetic to China in general. China’s relative economic success in the last two decades and its distinguished triumph over the virus perhaps play a role in the divergence of opinion in Europe. Even so, Brussels is largely to blame itself for the political void that Beijing can exploit.
If the fruits of the European Union had been more equally spread amongst member states and the membership had been from the beginning firmly attached to democratic principles, China’s ideological influence in Europe would have been inconsequential.
The United States under Biden will no longer revive the old transatlantic alliance let alone criticise Europe for its lack of integration like in the 1950s. Unlike Trump, however, Biden understands that constraining China requires finding common ground with European allies. Such an alliance will have to determine how to handle Beijing but the best response against China’s authoritarian narrative is to ensure that democracy at home continues to operate for all. Biden has pledged that he will focus on “restoring the soul of America.” European leaders also need to recommit themselves to Konrad Adenauer’s ideals.
Germany, as the country in Europe with the largest economic ties to China, can signal today by virtue of holding the European Union Council Presidency that German industry interests are not above European ones. That would be one small step for European solidarity, one giant leap for challenging China.
- CVCE, Message from Konrad Adenauer on the importance of European integration (February 1950), August 2012. Retrieved from: https://www.cvce.eu/en/obj/message_from_konrad_adenauer_on_the_importance_of_european_integration_february_1950-en-b21b7673-3252-4fc9-bd48-412cb6c68214.html
- German Federal Foreign Office, Speech by Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel at the Munich Security Conference, February 2018. Retrieved from: https://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/en/newsroom/news/rede-muenchner-sicherheitskonferenz/1602662
- Wall Street Journal, China’s Biggest Investment in Greece Blocked by Archaeological Authority, April 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.wsj.com/articles/chinas-biggest-investment-in-greece-blocked-by-archaeological-authority-11554317046
- DW, Czechs set sail on ancient Danube-Oder-Elbe Canal, 10 November 2020. Retrieved from: https://www.dw.com/en/the-czech-president-wants-to-link-the-danube-elbe-and-oder-rivers-in-a-canal-project/a-55540041
- Financial Times, China’s Balkan investment pledges stoke EU concern, July 2018. Retrieved from: https://www.ft.com/content/6c646a3e-7d29-11e8-bc55-50daf11b720d
- Merics, Reinhard Bütikofer: "We are learning to avoid being enchanted by ‘win-win’ rhetoric, September 2020. Retrieved from: https://merics.org/en/interview/reinhard-butikofer-we-are-learning-avoid-being-enchanted-win-win-rhetoric
- DW, Unmasking the EU's coronavirus recovery fund — the fine print, July 2020. Retrieved from: https://www.dw.com/en/unmasking-the-eus-coronavirus-recovery-fund-the-fine-print/a-54255523
- Financial Times, Biden pledges to ‘restore soul of America’ in bipartisan victory speech, November 2020. Retrieved from: https://www.ft.com/content/95268089-1178-4bbe-b41f-ce3e3d5dac8a
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