Official Photo by Wang Yu Ching / Office of the President

The past year has seen ties between the EU and Taiwan warm at an unprecedented speed and intensity. Still, should the two sides let momentum subside, the present window of opportunity could very easily be shuttered. 

As such, the EU’s failure to upgrade ties with Taiwan will only embolden the Chinese leadership’s pursuit of its authoritarian goals and ambitions, coming at the heavy expense of democracy worldwide.

To be sure, the recent push to upgrade ties with Taiwan, increasing since the onset of the pandemic, has already angered Beijing. China is already threatening those in support of closer ties “to pay a heavy price” and now eyeing sanctions against Taiwan supporters. Yet, this has largely backfired. In fact, these rebukes appear to have further fueled European readiness to push back against threats.

As the EU continues to be seen as a complex player in the Indo-Pacific, several member states have begun to push Brussels to embrace a new strategic approach towards the region. Yet, European capitals are still struggling to fully understand the significance of strategic shifts in the Indo-Pacific and the implications on the EU’s capacity to act, even as they struggle to stabilize their own backyard. At the same time, the EU is toughening its stance on China to better protect its economic interests and democracy from authoritarian threats. 

On the frontlines of a new clash of ideologies, Taiwan has continued to deepen already solid security and economic ties with the United States to counter the existential threat it faces from China. In this context, robust relations with Washington enjoy priority in Taiwan’s foreign and security policy, including a US commitment to assist in maintaining Taiwan’s self-defense capability. Due to this arrangement, reservations concerning Brussels’ and Taipei’s readiness to engage each other further appear justified.

Nonetheless, there is now an opportunity to diminish misgivings about EU-Taiwan ties and send a message of strength to Beijing. The question is: can the EU and Taiwan secure enhanced political and economic cooperation that will serve the interests of both, by jointly countering authoritarian threats while contributing to peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and beyond? 

The European Parliament Paving the Way

In late October, with a majority of 580 to 26 votes, the European Parliament adopted a report on EU-Taiwan political relations and cooperation, calling for the pursuit of a comprehensive and enhanced partnership under the guidance of the EU’s One China Policy.

The report urged increased bilateral economic, scientific, cultural, political and people-to-people exchanges with the participation of member state representatives,” including at the most senior levels.” On its long list of recommendations, the report called on the European Commission and the European External Action Service to “consider learning from Taiwan’s experience of fighting disinformation.” 

At the start of November, the European Parliament’s Special Committee to counter foreign interference in all democratic processes in the EU (INGE) sent a delegation on a three-day visit to Taiwan. The seven lawmakers in the delegation represented different member states and came from across political groups, indicating that support for Taiwan goes beyond political camps. 

Both the report and the delegation are unprecedented and provide a solid foundation for the further consolidation of bilateral cooperation. The report is the EP’s first ever stand-alone report on Taiwan, paving the way to see Taiwan on its own merit, not in the framework of EU-China ties. The lawmakers’ visit, planned for months but following less than two weeks after the adoption of the report, makes history as the first official delegation ever authorized by the EU institution.

As both the EU and Taiwan are threatened by influence operations from authoritarian governments, the two sides discussed ways to strengthen cooperation in countering hybrid threats throughout the three-day visit. Specifically, focus was placed upon Taiwan’s experience to reinforce its cyber-resilience as it fights against attempts to interfere in its democracy.

In fact, French Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Raphaël Glucksmann, who headed the INGE delegation, characterized the opportunity well in a meeting with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen. 

“[Taiwan’s] success in building up democracy while being confronted with threats is a goldmine for us,” he said

It is for the same reason that the delegation extended an invitation to Taiwan’s Digital Minister, Audrey Tang, for more talks in Brussels, which the Minister accepted.

Together Towards Resilient Value Chains

At the same time, Glucksmann made it clear that the delegation visit was also driven by European self-interest. 

This sentiment echoes a broad agreement that sits at the core of the EU’s Indo-Pacific Strategy released in September. In short, the EU is taking measures to address its vulnerabilities exposed by the pandemic, including its dependence on supply chains and semiconductors. The EU now sees Taiwan as a “partner” in this regard, acknowledging its key role. This is especially vital as any disruption in Taiwan would inevitably send shock waves through global supply chains. 

This thinking is in line with the understanding in Brussels that while the EU is not a ‘resident’ actor in the Indo-Pacific, it is an important stakeholder there. More than 35 percent of all European exports go to Indo-Pacific markets, and about 90 percent of these transit through the sea lanes of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. In other words, Europe is vulnerable to threats emanating from the region.

The EU is the largest investor in Taiwan. Brussels said it would work with Taiwan as an Indo-Pacific partner toward resilient and diversified value chains as it seeks to reduce critical supply chain vulnerabilities, particularly those linked to overdependence on China. In this light, ignoring Taiwan’s relevance is going against its own interests. 

In the end, it all boils down to a realization that threats to Taiwan’s democracy and economy are threats to Europe’s democracy and economy. Understanding these links is not a question of choice, but a must, and vital to maintaining the momentum in bilateral ties. 

What’s Next?

The INGE delegation visit has reiterated the European Parliament’s broad support for Taiwan and further amplified it. As a sign of the visit’s possible long-term impact, the lawmakers agreed that as the EU considers building a hub to combat disinformation, it should be located in Taiwan. Given Taiwan’s expertise, this “makes a lot of sense”, Glucksmann remarked. 

The visit could also help blunt otherwise legitimate concerns that the European Parliament lacks the ability to augment Taiwan’s importance. After all, Parliament’s reports in the field of foreign and security policy are not legally binding. The EU’s foreign and security policy is indeed driven by member states and any decision on EU policy concerning China and Taiwan, or any third country for that matter, requires the unanimous support of all EU member states. 

Yet, as we are seeing in the case of EU-Taiwan relations, the European Parliament’s voice matters in shaping perceptions and discourse in Brussels. In fact, its reports should be seen as part of a larger process where the European legislature is using its powers with courage, creativity and confidence as it builds up its support for Taiwan and maintains a values-based approach to China. 

One of the recommendations MEPs included in their Taiwan report was to “urgently begin an impact assessment, public consultation and scoping exercise on a Bilateral Investment Agreement (BIA) with the Taiwanese authorities in preparation for negotiations to deepen bilateral economic ties.”

The European Commission starting an impact assessment on a Bilateral Investment Agreement with Taiwan is in the interest of both the EU and Taiwan. For the launching of any negotiations, the usual internal procedures will have to be followed in the EU, including an impact assessment, and a decision by the Council authorizing the opening of negotiations, together with possible negotiating directives. 

The Commission has been reserved concerning a deal with Taiwan. “There is no economic interest in having an investment agreement with Taiwan,” said Miriam Garcia Ferrer, a spokeswoman in the EU’s directorate-general for trade office.

According to Hilde Vautmans, Belgian MEP and standing rapporteur on China, however, both the Commission and the Council are “reluctant” because they believe that the move would damage the EU’s One-China policy. For now, the Commission has welcomed regular policy dialogues on economic, trade and investment issues, including on market access barriers. It stated that it would like these exchanges, including the EU-Taiwan Investment Forum, held since 2020, to become part of the regular bilateral trade and investment cooperation with Taiwan, “with a view to reinforcing the strategic cooperation on sectors of common interest.”

Yet, failing to give the Commission the mandate to negotiate a BIA, member states will remain detached from the geo-economic and geopolitical reality. The European Parliament has prepared the ground. Member states now have to build on it.