At the exhibition summit in September, the two were set to take significant steps forward in their economic and strategic relations. At least that’s the plan.
Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will gather European Union leaders and Chinese President Xi Jinping in the city of Leipzig, Germany on September 14.
The German diplomat said the location was chosen because of the historical relations of the former East Germany with China. They said that Merkel, who chaired the presidency of the European Union Council for the last time in her chancellery, was personally invested in the success of the summit.
Indeed, pulling China closer to European values of human rights, climate change, and multilateralism is the type of legacy made by leaders. And although the Leipzig summit is far from making or breaking moments in European relations with China, this level of hubbub has a lot to go through.
However, there is a real feeling in Brussels that the pandemic has caused European thinking about China.
“I think coronavirus has been an important reminder to many EU countries that however attractive Chinese money is, it is also a systemic rival,” said Steven Blockmans, EU foreign policy chief at the Center for European Policy Studies.
Blockman refers to the communique released by the European Commission in March 2019, where he described China as “a systemic rival who promotes alternative models of government”.
In the context of the coronavirus, the Chinese government model concerns EU officials.
A spokesman for European Union Foreign Affairs and Security Policy told CNN that the document quoted by Politico was actually not a draft report.
Whatever the truth, it is clear that some in Brussels are very concerned with Chinese behavior.
“It’s all about seeing which (political) system is better at dealing with viruses. Is it a system that allows personal freedom? Or is it a single party autocracy where you can implement actions without worrying too much,” said an EU official who worked in all external affairs.
So where does all this leave what should be the year in which China and Europe end up on the same page?
At the time of writing, very few believe that the Leipzig summit will be as imagined by Merkel and her colleagues.
At a practical level, a virus means the two parties have not been able to meet physically. European diplomats point out that in the European Union Council building, there are usually around 30 meeting rooms for representatives from 27 member countries to meet and discuss sensitive issues. “Now there are only about 10 that can guarantee social distance,” said a diplomat.
Velina Tchakarova, head of the institute at the Austrian Institute for European Policy and Security, estimates that “China’s actions during and after covid-19 will result in further opposition and fragmentation in European countries [on] how to resolve relations with Beijing. ”
He pointed to disagreements on issues such as allowing Chinese companies to build 5G networks and EU-level decisions about who can and cannot invest in member countries.
For this reason and more, most believe that the Leipzig summit will be completely overshadowed by coronavirus.
However, despite the low level of confidence and open recognition that China is a “systemic rival,” it seems that the EU will try and get everything back on track.
“That will make us rethink, but at the same time we cannot leave China,” an EU diplomat told CNN. “All our economies depend on supply chains flowing back to Wuhan and beyond. We always say there is no interest to be served from not trading with them. So the problem will always be there.”
Another German diplomat defended urgently, saying that “China’s influence is increasing, but that is not one-sided. Clearly, China also needs Europe.” This, the Brussels official hoped, would mean being able to pressure China on things like its position on human rights.
For the EU, involvement with China is more than money. “Increasing its involvement with China gives the European Union the opportunity to double its strategic priorities,” Blockmans said, referring to the EU’s main foreign policy priorities namely balancing relations with China and the US, giving the EU more autonomy on the world stage.
However, concerns over China’s transparency during the pandemic have been a sharp reminder of what engagement with China really means.
On the one hand, the European Union’s calculations about China have not changed: it is still desirable not to be squeezed between the two superpowers, China and America. On the other hand, recent history shows China as an unreliable partner that shares opinions among EU member states.
Sooner or later, Europe must consider these two realities and decide exactly how much value diplomatic independence from America.