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Power from Within: The Benchmark for EU Unity on China

Josep Borrell
Image source: Flickr / European Parliament

“The EU needs to practice the language of power, not just speak it,” said the EU’s High Representative Josep Borrell during the 2020 EU Ambassadors’ Conference. In a similar vein, following the election of Joe Biden, Borrell highlighted the fact that the EU’s quest for strategic autonomy is not over with the prospect of a revival of Transatlantic relations.

As part of this quest, the European bloc still needs to step up its own answer to the challenges to its interests and values posed by Beijing. At the least, there seems to be a wide agreement as to the way to go about it.

The need for “EU unity on China” or “speaking to China with a single voice” is an apparent panacea prescribed by European politicians and experts alike to the current predicament. It is notable that the EU-China Summit in June was considered a success in Brussels despite no apparent progress being made on substantive issues with Beijing, simply thanks to the united voice coming from EU leaders. Similarly, the European Council in early October was lauded as an important step towards unity on China, as the EU27 leaders endorsed the EU-China Strategic Outlook from March 2019 reaffirming it as a bedrock framework for European China policy. 

However, akin to the somewhat ambiguous term of strategic autonomy, what this unity entails in practical terms remains elusive. So, what could be an effective benchmark for European cohesion on China? As the EU seems inclined to retain an autonomous, self-confident position amid the new chapter of Sino-American rivalry, clarity on this is even more important.

Expectations and Capabilities

The EU’s lack of sufficient unity on China is often invoked in relation to the bloc’s inability to come together with impactful and timely responses to controversial political developments or to the member states’ participation in China’s foreign policy schemes such as the Belt and Road Initiative or the 17+1 China-CEE framework.

For instance, throughout this year the EU has drawn considerable criticism over its response to the imposition of the Hong Kong National Security Law. Despite the European Parliament issuing a confident Hong Kong resolution almost two weeks prior to the law’s official announcement, a meaningful EU-level response (meaning a package of measures) was agreed upon by the Council only almost a month after the fact. Similarly,  the latest moves by Beijing to eliminate the autonomy of the legislature  in Hong Kong have resulted in relatively toothless declarations.

The issue does not seem to be primarily with Brussels, but with the challenge of bringing all the European capitals together. Often invoked examples of disunity include the 2017 Greek block of an EU statement on China human rights in the UN or the EU’s inability to adopt a joint statement in support of the ruling by the South China Sea arbitral tribunal over vetos from Greece, Hungary and Croatia.

The EU’s efficiency is in essence constrained by the Lisbon Treaty’s requirement of unanimity within the European Council (level of heads of state) or the Council (level of ministers) in deciding on matters of the common foreign and security policy. Moreover, the complete alignment is challenging given the divergence not only of interests among the member states but also in the level of importance they attach to China in general. 

According to a research by ECFR, while China policy is among the top five key policies considered by Germany and France for example, it does not even make it to the top 10 when EU27 is considered. It is then not surprising that only a select few EU member states – like Sweden or the Netherlands – have their own national China strategies. This makes the process of finding commonalities among all the EU member states – with some having a defined strategic interest towards China and others pursuing a more flexible, opportunistic policy – even more challenging. Consequently, expecting a rapid formation of complete alignment between EU capitals on China when an issue arises is perhaps expecting too much.

A breakthrough could be achieved through the revision of treaties and the introduction of qualified majority voting or a similar mechanism in the context of common foreign and security policy. This idea – at least in relation to human rights sanctions – has been recently endorsed by the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in her State of the Union Address. But moving away from unanimity was clearly opposed by the European Council President Charles Michel during his speech on strategic autonomy and appears quite unrealistic given current sentiments towards treaty changes.

Power of Mechanisms

However, the EU’s power – including on unity on China issues – comes primarily not from outbursts of political will for alignment at a moment’s notice but rather from its institutions, regulations, and mechanisms. It is in this realm that the EU’s intensified activity towards shaping a unity on China over the last couple of years deserves considerable attention.

Namely, Brussels has been working to systematically address on the EU-level the key challenges posed by China through developing both a toolbox of defensive measures and new tools to safeguard European values.

The defensive toolbox includes measures aimed at addressing a range of issues from economic to cybersecurity considerations. For instance, the EU’s 5G toolbox announced in January 2020 provided the member states with recommendations to facilitate coordination of the response to the Huawei question. The ongoing EU trade policy review commenced in June 2020 with its commitment to Open Strategic Autonomy will include measures to tackle the strategic dependencies in European supply chains with China being among top considerations. In the same month, the Commission adopted a white paper on tackling the investments by foreign subsidised companies (set to be translated into a working mechanism next year) and imposed landmark tariffs on an Egyptian glassware company benefiting from Chinese subsidies. The EU FDI Screening Mechanism, which became operational in October 2020, is to help monitor investments in sensitive sectors,where the Commission is particularly concerned by Chinese activity. Work on the EU International Procurement Instrument which would seek to even out imbalances in public procurement (again with China in mind) is set to intensify next year according to a recent hearing of the International Trade Committee at the European Parliament.

At the same time, the EU has also been working towards developing tools that will address some of its values and global governance concerns related to China. It is worth noting the EU Connectivity Strategy – the unofficial response to the Belt and Road Initiative- from September 2018, which helped to define the “European way” in pursuing connectivity and provided a framework for the EU action in this regard (but has, unfortunately, fallen short of  expectations). More recently, in October 2020 the Commission has put forward its proposal of developing European Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime that would allow the bloc to introduce sanctions against human rights abusers more easily. In November, a new set of EU export rules was put in place to limit exports of dual-use goods including those used in surveillance and other human rights violations. Last but not least, the Commission is currently working on developing a due diligence mechanism aimed at limiting environmental and human rights abuses within the supply chains of the companies operating within the EU. With an expectation to be finalized next year, the mechanism could be used to address concerns related to forced labour of minorities from Xinjiang or Tibet.

All of these mechanisms allow the EU to tackle some of the key concerns related to China in a coordinated, united way with an impact much greater than what could be brought about by actions of a single member state. These tools – launched primarily as internal policies as opposed to foreign policy measures – can be the means for European convergence on China – one mechanism at a time.

Unity Benchmark

However, these mechanisms still require the political good-will of the member states to be effective. Many of them are voluntary in nature or leave the member states much room for their own interpretation during implementation. 

For instance, the EU’s 5G Toolbox is only a set of recommendations leaving the member states to implement it at a different pace. The Commission’s July assessment of measures implementation showed that about a third of EU members have not even adopted a timeframe to address the risk related to high-risk suppliers (primarily Huawei and ZTE). Similarly, the widely lauded FDI Screening Mechanism – which is effectively „only” a consultation mechanism – relies heavily on member states’  national FDI screening procedures to be functional. Yet, as of its launch in October, only 15 member states have had related national regulations in place despite the strong encouragement by the Commission to develop the relevant framework. 

A wider problem of implementation of EU’s internal mechanisms related to China was highlighted in a September report by the European Court of Auditors. The report documented challenges related to insufficient communication, lack of designated resources for the implementation of China-related actions proposed in theEU-China Strategic Outlook as well as violations of EU regulations by the member states in following their relations with China. For instance, none of the 15 EU countries that signed the memorandum of understanding on the Belt and Road Initiative has consulted the Commission about the matter, despite the obligation to inform the Berlaymont of agreements with non-EU partners that are linked to economic and industrial policies.  

Despite receiving less attention in the debates on the EU’s unity, it is the quality of implementation of such internal EU mechanisms that can serve as a primary, concrete benchmark of the European convergence on China. Not only does the EU enjoy greater agency on the matter compared to foreign policy, but it is also an area where the record of member states can be tracked and assessed. A comprehensive audit of implementation of EU policies related to China could uncover which member states are lagging behind and what are the exact causes of such tendencies. This could be pursued building up on the experience of the European Court of Auditor’s review of “The EU’s response to China’s state-driven investment strategy” and in the context of the Commission’s review of implementation of 10 actions proposed in the EU-China Strategic Outlook that is expected to be presented in March 2021.

Arguably, such unity of the EU on the domestic front is a prerequisite of its ability to “practice the language of power” in its foreign relations. It is well captured by the phenomenon of the “Brussels effect”, where internal unity allows the EU to enjoy a leading position in rules and standard setting. Similarly, it will determine the efficiency of the EU’s tools aimed at addressing the challenges posed by China, therefore affecting the European bloc’s standing in relations with Beijing and Washington.

Indeed, that is why it is important that, as the EU moves forward with its discussion on China policy, its external aspects – the new EU-US Dialogue on China or the preparations for the EU27’s meeting with Xi Jinping next year – don’t overshadow internal issues. After all, power often comes from within.

Written by

Grzegorz Stec


Grzegorz Stec is an analyst at MERICS, focusing on EU-China relations.