China ties can promote European integration

By Cristina Font Source:Global Times Published: 2018/7/12 19:08:40

Nowadays, no one would refute that China has growing global influence. And, the fact scares the European Union. Last year, Europeans did not have it easy. They have actually been beset with a number of problems such as Brexit, rise of right-wing populism, the refugee crisis and the eurozone sovereign debt crisis, which made them lose track of their aim: the integrity project.

In this context, China as a player opposing unilateralism and protectionism, and advocating a rules-based multilateral trading system, can help the EU shed its lethargy. China-EU relations can stop EU member states from thinking inwardly and start striving again for European integration. Moreover, now more than ever, with the commercial dispute between China and the US in the background, Beijing and Brussels can together safeguard globalization and free trade.

Western Europe doesn't completely share their partner's vision. Europe with its 500 million consumers is part of two out of six corridors of the Belt and Road initiative (BRI), placing them in the spotlight as well as under a lot of pressure. These circumstances create a nuanced perception of China, which continues feeding their suspicion and mistrust. Yet the success of further opening up trade routes in Europe, Chinese infrastructure projects in the region and the 16+1 initiative are threatened by Brussels' skepticism over Chinese involvement in the continent.

Europeans harbor political and economic concerns about China. They worry that 16+1 and BRI will undermine their increasingly fragile political unity and decision-making. Besides, some Western European countries fear that Beijing's huge investment potential and vast infrastructure projects will affect their interest in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans. For example, the China-Europe land-sea express passage has a route similar to the EU's Pan-European Corridor X. Instead of building two parallel infrastructure projects, China and the EU could collaborate through a joint venture investment project.

Western Europeans worry that the penetration of China into their market could affect Europe's long-term strategic independence. They are also preoccupied with the issues of reciprocity and access to the Chinese market for European companies. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, during the press conference with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, said that Beijing should allow greater access to European companies into the Chinese market.

Despite Western Europe being reticent about China's rapprochement, the truth is that Beijing and Brussels have experience of cooperating with each other. China-EU relations already have several milestones. In 2015, they celebrated the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties. Moreover, in the last few years, several cooperation platforms were created and implemented as China-EU joint investment cooperation, the launch of the China-EU connectivity platform, the AIIB, China-Europe comprehensive strategic partnership, and 16+1 initiative.

Last week, the 16+1 summit was held in Sofia, where leaders from China and 16 Central and Eastern European Countries (CEEC) got together. During the meeting, Premier Li put forward proposals to draw up a blueprint for cooperation, calling for deepening open and pragmatic cooperation between China and the CEEC to promote common prosperity and development. Until 2017, the member states increased their trade volume from $40 billion to almost $70 billion. Also, China's accumulated investment has reached nearly $10 billion with the CEEC investing more than $1.4 billion in China. In the last seven years, much has been accomplished economically and a better mutual understanding created.

 During the 16+1 convention and later while meeting Merkel, Premier Li assured that China, as a firm supporter of European integration, hopes the bloc will maintain its unity, stability, openness and prosperity. He also said that the 16+1 initiative as a new model of multilateral open cooperation, has consolidated the foundation for mutual trust and helped promote the development of China-EU relations.

Even if integration is both a Chinese and EU concept, the way they pursue it is different. China and the EU should continue respecting each other's core interests and major concerns in order to create positive synergies between China-proposed BRI and the EU integration process. It is then that China-EU cooperation will become a reality and a "win-win" situation created.

The author is a foreign policy analyst based in Europe. Follow her on Twitter: @cfontharo. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn



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