The European Union and China: the power of feelings

Photo by: The office of Dr Xiang Yu

College of Europe students visited the Chinese Mission to the EU in Brussels

By: Elise Cuny

On 13 January, a group of ten students accompanied by Professor Men, director of the EU-China Research Centre in the International Relations and Diplomacy department, were warmly welcomed to the Chinese mission to the EU by the First Secretary for Commercial Affairs, Dr. Xiang Yu.

The visit, which included a roundtable discussion about students’ theses on China and some curious ‘outsiders’ to the field, allowed an honest and rich discussion on how to frame and understand the relations between these two different, yet powerful blocks.

Thanks to Dr. Xiang Yu and his assistants’ expertise, as well as the research the students did, we were able to discuss the ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative, the field of renewable energy, the perception of EU’s protectionism towards China, and the issue of China’s market economy status. In addition to learning something, we also came away understanding the need to explore these topics further.

Indeed, while talking to Dr. Yu, we could almost feel that ‘natural and individual barriers’—culture, lack of understanding, and lack of trust—were at the core of the problematic EU-China relationship. Yet, initiatives are continually taken on both sides to develop the relationship, as seen with the 16+1 project with Central and Eastern European States or with the acquisition of the Greek port of Piraeus. China is willing to improve in order to enter the world economy, but it still finds strong resistance from the system to accept its commercial power. It seems that the EU instinctively justifies the economic relations with feelings: fear, frustration, trust – or distrust.

Yet, those feelings should not prevent the EU and China from playing fairly, notably regarding China’s latest complaint at the World Trade Organization against the US and the EU for failing to recognize it as a market economy, implying special treatment that was unfavourable to Chinese exports.

As students of EU Politics, International Relations, and Economics, we should be careful not to repeat similar actions that may create the perception that the EU is a selfish entity, following protectionist or liberal policies according to its own interests. If the EU is hard to access because of its norms, the EU has to be irreproachable on those same norms, including the respect of international trade rules.

EU trade partners tend to underestimate the complexity of the EU market. It is too reductionist to say “EU wants, EU asks”, even though the EU has the power to negotiate on trade matters, because trade has become more inclusive, more normative and member-states are now able to strike back in many ways. Therefore, China should not wait for the EU to act as a single liberal economic country.

However, the internal market cannot be forgotten either, notably with China’s problematic and massive coal production. Both the EU and China should avoid simplistic perceptions of themselves. Maybe China has understood its strength by entering the EU indirectly at the local level and in the periphery? Maybe the EU is wrong to be so tough on China? But then, what would the EU’s identity be if not a continent where norms and standards are high and diversity and quality are maintained? It is understandable that EU authorities are unwilling to become China’s export market just in the name of liberalism.

Eventually, only an honest dialogue between the two economic partners could lead to a solution and conclusion to the projects in the making. Moreover, the changes underway in the US with the election of Trump put the EU in a new position of influence. Only through dialogue will we manage to tackle the cultural barriers that are now too often underestimated in the field of trade.


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