31st May 2023

EU defends PR 'disaster' of China summit

  • EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and French president Emmanuel Macron in Beijing last weekend (Photo:
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The EU Commission has defended its handling of China diplomacy following a PR "disaster" on a mini-summit in Beijing.

Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and French president Emmanuel Macron gave a "very consistent" European message to Chinese president Xi Jinping when they held joint talks last Thursday (6 April), von der Leyen's spokesman said on Tuesday.

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The message was "we continue to call for peace and stability in the Straits of Taiwan and we are firmly opposed to any desire to change the status quo through unilateral use of force", the spokesman told press in Brussels.

The visit came amid redoubled Chinese sabre-rattling and increasingly belligerent rhetoric on Taiwan.

It also came after a fiery von der Leyen speech in Brussels in which she took Chinese authorities to task for their cozying up to Russia, economic coercion in Europe, and human rights abuses at home.

She repeated the same talking points in a lone press conference in China.

But for his part, Macron was much more China-friendly.

He even told European press in an interview the EU should not "become followers" of the US on Taiwan and get caught up "in crises that are not ours" — a hint that France and a united EU would not help Taiwan the way it did Ukraine if China invaded.

That prompted outrage from the US and from China hawks in Europe.

Macron had "managed to turn his China trip into a PR coup for [Xi] and a foreign policy disaster for Europe," said Norbert Röttgen, a senior German MP, referring to the spectacle of EU disunity in Beijing.

Chinese propaganda outlets had a heyday over Macron's remarks.

And Chinese protocol made matters worse, by feting Macron with full state honours on a three-day extravaganza, while leaving von der Leyen in the sidelines.

Von der Leyen's spokesman said she had consulted with Macron before going to China on what they should say, but had not yet spoken since his bombshell interview.

He played down the difference in their messaging by saying EU "coherence" was based on actions — such as its support for Ukraine or its handling of the pandemic — rather than words.

"Many people are going to Beijing at this time, you will have different comments being made," he said.

He also defended the EU Commission chief's right to have a different point of view than individual EU leaders.

"She has the possibility ... to speak her mind and set out what she considers is her vision on a strategic issue," he said. "Every other leader does so, so can she," he added.

Meanwhile, von der Leyen is no stranger to protocol snafus, not least following 'Sofagate' in 2021 — when the Turks gave her less important seating than her male counterpart, EU Council president Charles Michel, at a meeting in Ankara.

But in this case, "the Chinese were, as you would expect, perfect hosts", her spokesman said, even though there was no VIP to greet her at the airport (unlike Macron), no joint press conference with Xi (unlike Macron), and no parades or state banquet in her honour (unlike Macron).

This was because Macron was on a "state visit" while she was on a separate "high-level" trip instead, her spokesman argued.

Apart from the joint Xi-Macron talks, she also met Xi and Chinese premier Li Keqiang by herself in a sign that she was being taken seriously, the commission spokesman added.

"Were we expecting differences in protocol? Absolutely," the spokesman said.

"We didn't even travel on the same plane as Macron," he also said, highlighting the unusual nature of the EU Commission and France's joint China endeavour.


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