21st Sep 2023

EU squeezes China and Korea summits into one day

The EU has waxed lyrical this month about stepping up relations with its strategic partners, but holding a bilateral summit with China on the same day as a similar meeting with South Korea is a poor start, say experts.

EU officials confirmed on Tuesday (21 September) that a meeting between Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao during the afternoon of 6 October will be preceded earlier in the day by an EU-South Korea summit.

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  • EU talks with China's top officials will be over in hours (Photo: Dutch EU Presidency)

The move has raised eyebrows considering that EU High Representative Cathy Ashton reportedly spent roughly 17 hours during her recent trip to China just to prepare for the upcoming summit with Dai Bingguo, Beijing's most senior foreign policy official.

Amongst the weighty issues to be discussed are the G20 leaders' meeting in November and efforts to secure a successful environmental deal in Cancun later this year.

"Both South Korea and China are important relationships and cramming them in on the same day doesn't send a good message," Alice Richard, China programme co-ordinator with the European Council on Foreign Relations, told this website.

A commission official defended the timing, saying it was designed to facilitate travel arrangements for Asian officials visiting Brussels for an earlier EU-ASEAN summit on 4th and 5th of October.

The summits come amid an increasing realisation of China's growing stature in global affairs, evidenced by a European parliamentary debate on Tuesday morning.

Speaking on behalf of the legislature's largest political family, the centre-right EPP, Cypriot MEP Ioannis Kasoulides said the EU should pursue its interests but also "our values," referring specifically on the need to speak out against the reported ill-treatment of many Tibetans.

Other deputies concentrated on the need to secure greater market access for EU firms doing business in China, citing a maze of regulatory requirements as a deliberate hinderance to foreign companies.

Liberal MEP Niccolo Rinaldi said the EU's trade deficit with China had trebbled over the last five years. "We should make it clear to our Chinese friends that we don't like it," he told EU trade commissioner Karel De Gucht, present in the plenary chamber.

A coherent strategy?

Despite the growing interest in China, commentators were scathing about last week's European Summit on foreign affairs, pointing to a spat between France and the commission over the Roma ethnic group as a fortunate diversion from the meeting's lack of results.

But EU officials hope the bloc's External Action Service and the appointment of a fully-fledged EU ambassador to Beijing will help unify the frequent cacophony of divergent member state voices.

German Markus Ederer is set to take the powerful post, assuming he makes it through a hearing with the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee next month.

"I expected it would be a German, they have the most important relationship with China," said Gustaaf Geeraerts, director of the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies.

According to Mr Geeraerts, while the commission is China's main interlocutor on economic issues, Beijing prefers to deal with EU member states on foreign policy issues as the EU does not have a "sharp list of negotiating positions" in this area.

Member state inability to band together is also a problem, he says, with China frequently playing one government off another.

"The former big EU powers still have their own domestic interests and attach greater priorities to national positions," he said. "This is unsound. The British and French share of world GDP is constantly decreasing and if they are to have a role in the future they must co-operate."

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