Thursday

28th Jan 2021

Opinion

Beijing using lack of EU 'solidarity' to seize leadership

  • Italy is among the EU countries now receiving medical help from China - the source of the pandemic to begin with, in a test of EU solidarity (Photo: Valentina Saini)

EU commissioner Thierry Breton is calling Covid-19 a "crisis that knows no borders," but as Europeans look out of the windows in their home confinement, borders are all they see.

New restrictions are dividing citizens from each other and real, closed borders are sprouting between European states and between the transatlantic partners.

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These barriers are breaking down the freedoms the European Union is supposed to be all about – the freedom of movement for citizens and goods.

Days-long lines on the Polish-German border are trapping the citizens of the Baltic States in Germany, unable to cross into Poland to get home.

EU export restrictions on healthcare supplies are leaving the EU's neighbourhood, especially the Balkans, feeling abandoned by their closest and richest neighbour.

And in their rhetoric, national leaders, including Angela Merkel in her public address, failed to mention Europe's common struggle in their visions for battling the virus.

The only country that is breaking through these new barriers is the People's Republic of China.

Keen to appear as a leader in a crisis it largely contributed to create, China has launched several initiatives aimed at Europe.

Planes full of medical supplies – desperately needed test kits and masks – are arriving from China. Some of these are donations from the government or from private entities like Alibaba, while other shipments are supplies purchased by Europeans.

Good will and global cooperation in battling the virus are essential, but Europe should be aware that China is taking advantage of the lack of solidarity between European member states to achieve its own goals.

In accepting the China's aid, Europe should not undermine its own internal cohesion and be wary of being used to advance an authoritarian state's propaganda.

Italy, the EU member state that has so far been hardest hit by the pandemic, has been a particularly prominent target of Chinese outreach.

In a recent op-ed, the Italian ambassador to the EU deplored that "only China responded" to his country's pleas for help.

This allowed Rome's foreign minister Luigi Di Maio to very publicly praise China's provision of medical material to his country, leaving unclear to what extent the material would be donated rather than sold.

Some reports have speculated that Di Maio may be using the crisis to further his long-standing agenda to move Italy closer to China. Beijing is encouraging this rhetoric.

The Chinese foreign minister's spokeswoman actively relayed a false story about Italians singing "Thank you China!" from their balconies.

And Chinese authorities are making sure that any help they provide is widely publicised. Researcher Lucrezia Poggetti linked certain Chinese donations to Italy to the United Front, Beijing's agency responsible for coordinating influence operations at home and abroad.

But Italy is not the only European country turning to China for help in fighting the crisis, and the Chinese authorities consistently use European requests for self-aggrandisement.

When the Spanish prime minister contacted Chairman Xi for help in obtaining medical supplies, Chinese state media quickly capitalised on the call to promote their leadership's responsiveness.

Twitter PR

Similarly, the Czech Republic has just bought testing kits from China, a fact the Chinese foreign ministry has diligently advertised.

And the Chinese embassy to France has also broadcast its provision of masks and other supplies on Twitter, a social media banned in China.

Whether this vast Chinese operation will succeed remains to be seen. However, the Europeans' inward-looking response has given China an opening, especially in the EU's neighbourhood.

On March 18, Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić most vividly illustrated what the EU stands to lose when he labelled European solidarity "a fairy tale on paper" before concluding that "the only country that can help [Serbia] is China."

Europe should not stay passive in the face of China's divisive tactics. The EU needs to show its relevance to citizens and its helpfulness to all member states.

Once borders and barriers are up, they will be hard to pull down. It is up to the EU to be visible and true to its principles and democratic ideals throughout the coronavirus crisis. This is especially crucial in the Southern and Central European member states already frustrated with the EU over economic, migration or justice policies and at risk of falling away from Europe's principles of democracy and openness.

The EU could be catching up.

Ursula von der Leyen announced new measures to organise (and pay 90 percent of) strategic stockpiles of medical equipment including ventilators and masks, explicitly saying the new initiative is putting "EU solidarity into action."

The European Central Bank has similarly launched a €750bn package to help southern European countries, in particular, that were struggling economically even before the coronavirus crisis.

Such measures of concrete assistance are essential.

The EU needs to continue to act to break through the new barriers being created, and as importantly, to be visible to citizens. Not only health, but trust in the democratic system and European project are on the line.

Author bio

Kristine Berzina is senior fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund in Brussels, where Etienne Soula is a research assistant.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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