April 14. 2024. 7:25

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The Brief — Dancing around the dependencies trap

With China, French President Emmanuel Macron has found himself a new diplomatic mission. But his critics are not so convinced that he – and by some extension, Europe – have learned their mistakes from what happened with Russia.

While the next major strike against his pension reform continues in France, Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen are holding talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, scheduled to last until Friday.

As a main set goal, Macron and von der Leyen want to persuade President Xi to put more pressure on Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to end his war in Ukraine.

Macron told his Chinese counterpart he was counting on him to “bring Russia to its senses” regarding Ukraine and everyone to the negotiating table.

But while Xi did mention Ukraine briefly in a joint press session, the issue didn’t make it into the Chinese government read out of the talks.

Which again raises doubt whether these diplomatic efforts can be successful.

Apart from vague declarations of intent to work for peace, there are so far no signs that Xi wants to assert his influence in Moscow – he has not yet spoken to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy directly, in contrast to his relatively amicable visit to Moscow last month.

But the attempts underline the recent realisation that China has been recognised as a player to reckon with in resolving the war.

At the same time, Europe is waking up to the malevolent influence of the Chinese regime.

In Brussels corridors, few would disagree that von der Leyen’s new China doctrine of ‘de-risking’, not ‘de-coupling’, is the appropriate approach.

The devil is in the details, though. Or more accurately, as is so often the case, in the interpretation.

It’s the classic EU fudge: from a strategy point of view, most member states agree in principle, but in practice, they are likely to interpret the concept as they please.

For von der Leyen, de-risking means defining areas with a high risk of current and future dependencies and looking into whom they cooperate with and how.

Europe must not become too dependent on China, but it is still necessary to “continue the economic relationship”, as Macron said, going further than von der Leyen to emphasise keeping strong business ties with Beijing.

China, meanwhile has been only too eager for Europe not to follow what Beijing sees as a US-led effort to contain its rise and has repeatedly stressed its support for “strategic autonomy”, for Beijing a synonym for not following Washington’s tougher line.

The Chinese know only too well how much ‘strategic autonomy’ is music to Macron’s ears.

Macron is a prime example of the Western European leaders who, having been cosy with Moscow until the war started, are now calling for engagement with Beijing.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz got a lot of flak for his solo trip to Beijing last year. The press so far has been a bit kinder to his French counterpart, who arrived with a large business delegation and can look towards massive orders for domestic industry.

“It’s good they [European leaders] are going; it’s all very well that they try to hammer home the points about Russia and our view on who’s responsible for the Ukraine war. But it too much reminds me of similar attempts trying to woo Russia in the past,” an Eastern European foreign minister told EURACTIV earlier this year.

Despite repeated warnings by Eastern Europeans and the United States, Germany, supported by other big European companies, went ahead and deepened energy dependencies with Russia that were painful to untangle when needed and were used by Moscow as a geostrategic pressure tool.

Member states rushed to find alternative sources to Russian energy, but with China’s control over raw materials and economic power, it will be far more difficult.

European leaders assure that they won’t repeat the same mistakes, that they increasingly understand the security and investment risks Beijing poses to the bloc’s strategic sectors and how their market dependence makes them vulnerable.

Nevertheless, the bad aftertaste is unlikely to disappear, no matter how much spin is added to the ‘de-risking’ talk.

The line, that ‘it never will be necessary to fully decouple’, feels very familiar. We thought the same with Russia – and look where that got us.

The Roundup

Packaging manufacturers and the recycling industry have warned of big challenges ahead before the EU can achieve its planned targets to rein in packaging waste.

The Catalan government has decided to ban the use of the Pegasus software and other similar programs following a cabinet meeting on Tuesday (4 April).

Some EU countries such as Czechia are already making ‘secondary use’ of health data, ahead of the set-up of the new EU-wide framework to boost the digitalisation of the sector.

And finally, don’t forget to check out our Politics Brief: Spin king Renzi is no journalist and Economy Brief: Make banks safe again.

Look out for…

  • Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in China; meeting the Chinese premiere, industry representatives.
  • Commissioner Thierry Breton holds a videoconference call with mineral and lithium group executives.