During his official visit to China from 4 to 6 November, the French president Emmanuel Macron wants to defend European interests and send a message of European unity to the second largest economy in the world.
Symbolically, a member of the German Government, Research Minister Anja Karliczek, European Commissioner for Agriculture Phil Hogan and representatives of some 20 German companies are accompanying the President of France to China.
Already in March, when he received President Xi Jinping at the Elysée, Emmanuel Macron invited the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, to join him. The message was clear: while China is the European Union’s main trading partner, it also has become a systemic rival, and now must be dealt with as a cohesive group. The message from the President of France is the right one. Beijing knows well how to divide and conquer; therefore it is an illusion for any European country, regardless how powerful, to think they can negotiate on an equal footing with China.
Although this announcement should not be interpreted too much, the appointment on Friday 1 November of a ‘Mr Europe’ in Chinese diplomacy is undoubtedly a sign that Beijing, which for a long time has regarded Europe as a negligible entity, is revising its analysis. The European Union must also be able to stay united for the long term. They are still a long way from that though. Last September, Angela Merkel ensured that she did not invite any French business leaders to accompany her to China. Last week at the UN, some European countries did not condemn the repression of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang in Beijing. Not to mention the European divisions in the field of 5G technology and whether or not to open this market to the Chinese giant Huawei.
First European victory
Thanks to its policy of influence, particularly in the context of the “new Silk Roads”, a major global infrastructure investment project, Beijing is perfectly placed to exert pressure on the various capitals to distance themselves from international initiatives that they do not like. Emmanuel Macron’s approach should therefore not be an isolated act. Europeans have already achieved their first victory. During the visit of the French President and the European Commissioner to Beijing on Wednesday 6 November, an agreement on the protection of geographical indications, which was negotiated with the Chinese a few years ago, will be signed. This is an important step forward, especially for farmers. An agreement on investment protection has yet to be negotiated.
The Europeans, who believe that the Chinese are trying to wait out the United State in their trade war with them, hope to reach an agreement in the second half of 2020, when President Xi Jinping visits Germany, at the next EU-China summit. Such an agreement would mean a real resurgence of multilateralism, which is in a very poor state. These issues, as well as the ongoing negotiations on climate and biodiversity, will be an opportunity to see whether Beijing, which continues to express its confidence in multilateralism, takes Europe seriously.