Monday

4th Mar 2024

Opinion

Why the deafening EU silence on Taiwan election result?

  • It's hard not to be infected by Taiwan's democracy bug. Unfortunately, too many European leaders seem to have become immune to it (Photo: ec.europa.eu)
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China gave Taiwan a choice in its recent elections: vote for the incumbent Democratic Progressive Party and accelerate conflict; or kowtow to Beijing and maybe get a raincheck on Beijing's threats. The Taiwanese chose their option: democracy. Yet most democracies of the world failed these brave freedom-loving people and failed their own democracies in the process.

In 13 January election, the Taiwanese made clear they will not give in to bullying. While the turnout was comparable to European national elections (72 percent), the vibrancy was off the scale for those of us familiar with sober European campaigns.

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As we prepare for our own European elections, our leaders may scratch their heads wondering why voters across the continent are not enthused by democracy, or why democracy seems to be in decline around the world.

Maybe they should look in the mirror, and then re-read (yes, EU, France, Germany) their own muffled, muted and couched reactions to Taiwan's transition of power, conducted under pressure from a global superpower.

I was in Taipei for the rallies and the vote. At the Democratic-progressive party's (DPP) big election rally. 'Dongsuan', dongsuan, dongsuan, the victory battle cry echoed in-between stage and supporters. A sea of green DPP-flags in the hands of party-supporters, interspersed even with the occasional Ukrainian flag or face mask.

At the Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) party's rally, on a huge stage, the crowd was fired up by political audience warmers. "give me a president!" was shouted from the stage. "Hou Yu-ih" the followers replied. I also saw the engaged — often young — supporters of the Taiwan People's Party, a new centrist force focusing on those dissatisfied with the traditional two parties. After securing 26 percent on election day, there's no doubt the party will play a significant role in Taiwanese politics, especially holding the balance of power between the two established parties in Taiwan's parliament.

Three-way split

Taiwan's election result produced a three-party dynamic. The liberal DPP will hold the presidency; the more Beijing-conciliatory KMT is likely to clinch the speaker of the parliament; and the Taiwan People's Party will play a role of kingmaker.

Taiwan's political leadership will have to decide whether its politics will be more like that of a European coalition, with consensus and compromise the buzzwords; or legislative gridlock as we see in Washington.

Many Western companies have been waiting for the outcome of this election to make investment decisions — for example Danish companies like Vestas or Ørsted looking to increase investments in wind power. For them and other European companies are eager to see whether the new reality produces paralysis or pragmatism.

For Beijing, political paralysis would be the best outcome. Xi's anaconda strategy seeks to close the noose around Taiwan's neck, gradually coercing the world to close off its ties with democratic Taipei. Getting micro-state Nauru to discard Taiwan just after Lai's elections was China's first step.

It would undoubtedly love to see political division within Taiwan, which it could both stir up with fresh doses of disinformation, and present to the world as a sign of a dysfunctional democracy and proof that Chinese society and freedom are incompatible.

This is why Europe can no longer sit on the fence on Taiwan and hide behind obfuscating tweets designed not to designate Lai as president-elect, or to recognise that these were presidential elections at all. All to avoid an awkward phone call from the Chinese ambassador. The Lithuanian foreign minister and the Czech president are the notable exceptions, stating clearly their congratulations for Taiwan's president. They are to be commended for putting values before interests.

Recognising William Lai's victory as president is not supporting any change of policy in Taiwan. Some Western headlines suggest the president-elect is pro-independence, which is part of China's narrative. Listen to Lai. In continuation from current president Tsai, he backs the status quo.

Adherence to the status quo or the One China policy do not preclude European leaders from engaging with Taiwan's democratically-elected leadership, nor in pursuing a strengthening of economic, cultural and political ties. On the contrary.

Strengthening ties with Taiwan is economically in our interests, not just because of Taiwan's dominance in the semiconductor industry. This May, as the new president takes office, he should be visited by a high-level EU delegation. It could be led by the EU trade commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis. An EU-Taiwan economic agreement would send the strongest signal that we are serious about strengthening our own high-tech industries. It would send a deterrent signal to Beijing that we will not dance to their anaconda strategy tune.

It's hard not to be infected by Taiwan's democracy bug. Unfortunately, too many European leaders seem to have become immune to it.

But the people of Taiwan are willing to stand up for their own freedom despite threats, coercion and bullying. Europe should follow their lead if we want our own democracies to thrive.

Author bio

Jonas Parello-Plesner is executive director of the Alliance of Democracies.

Disclaimer

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

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