The Message Europe Should Take From Xi’s Visit – OpEd

Was Xi Jinping’s first trip to Europe in five years a success? It certainly appeared that Xi’s visits to France, Serbia and Hungary, which had both a trade and a political agenda, were successful for the Chinese leader. Can we say the same for France, the EU or Europe? Well, there is not a straight or single answer. And this by itself unveils some of Europe’s grave contradictions on important geopolitical, security and trade issues.

There is no doubt that trade and business are interlinked with politics and the theme was clear. It was interesting to note that French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Monday held a trilateral meeting with Xi, while German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was missing. Ahead of the meeting, Von der Leyen criticized China’s state subsidies for manufacturing, saying they were leading to market distortions and potential deindustrialization in Europe.

So, the discussions revolved around reducing trade imbalances and Macron emphasized the need to update EU-China relations due to Beijing’s massive exports to Europe. The opening up of Chinese markets has been a consistent request. The EU is considering imposing tariffs on Chinese electric vehicles over state subsidy concerns. Macron aimed to prevent Chinese retaliation over this investigation, which could affect French exports like cognac. Yet one may say that this is all part of the push and pull between big trading blocs and, despite the trading deficit, Europe needs China’s industrial capacity just as much as China needs the European markets.

There is an overestimation of Europe’s impact and importance. The reality is that, even if Europe is the host, the agenda was set by Beijing

Khaled Abou Zahr

On the trickier political agenda, when reading the coverage of this visit by the European media, I could not help but think this is like the Lebanese writing on Lebanese affairs, meaning that there is an overestimation of Europe’s impact and importance. The reality is that, even if Europe is the host, the agenda was set by Beijing. We can live in the illusion of being impactful in this dialogue, but the reality is that Xi already knew exactly what the outcomes would be.

The main topic was Ukraine and Russia. Macron looked to discuss China’s influence on Moscow regarding the conflict. This was quickly brushed aside. The reality is that there is nothing France or Europe can say or do that could influence China’s policy on that matter, simply because they cannot deliver on any agreement. Moreover, the conflict in Ukraine pushes for a global strategic realignment that no luxurious French hospitality can change. It is also needless to say that some European actions have created a precedent that could be repeated. Despite being the only nuclear power in the EU, which confers France with strategic importance, there is a question of mutualization that was sparked by Xi’s visit.

There was also, as we say in Arabic, the absent present in this visit, which is the US. And here lies the biggest strategic question: Will the EU and Europe have to choose between China and the US at some point? Today, it can balance between both powers. However, the more the conflict in Ukraine intensifies and the more measures that are taken against Russia and its assets in Europe, the bigger the risks for Europe of being unable to maintain positive bilateral relationships. This is something that China knows: the transatlantic alignment is, to this day, the safety for Europe.

It is true that Xi’s visit ignited a debate on Europe’s relationship with the US and this was a success for the Chinese leader because one must say that it was predominantly negative. The European position has become more anguished as a result of the growing US ambiguity. We are noticing more and more analysts and commentators criticizing the transatlantic alliance, especially those from the left and progressive crowd, who believe that Europe needs to free itself and break with the US. This would be a grave mistake.

The European position on the transatlantic alliance has become more anguished as a result of the growing US ambiguity

Khaled Abou Zahr

This line of thinking was clear in the second leg of the visit of the Chinese leader. The same journalists depicted both Serbia and Hungary as pro-Vladimir Putin and, to an extent, enemies of Europe. This was also a huge mistake. This is precisely what will create more risks for the future of Europe. Serbia may have historically close links to Russia, yet it has applied for EU membership. And Belgrade must not be comfortable when hearing of potential fast-track access for Ukraine, as it has been a candidate since 2012. And due to the critics of its election process or the necessity of a normalization of relations within the Balkans, Serbia’s access to the EU seems to be fading away. And so, this attitude opens the door for the Balkan country to seek other opportunities, such as with China.

In the same way, qualifying the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban as anti-US is a mistake. He is anti-progressive and there is a big difference. More precisely, he is conservative and this seems to be something Europe no longer tolerates. These divisions are the true risk to the future of the EU and its stability. This divide is no longer between countries but across and through them, and this extends all the way to the US between Republicans and Democrats.

The US ambiguity and the deep domestic divides, as well as the challenges between national sovereignty and mutualization with a unique voice for Europe, are putting forward new challenges for the old continent. This will force choices in terms of alignment if the conflict in Ukraine grows.

It was also a coincidence that Xi’s visit took place the week of May 8, which was the anniversary of the capitulation of Nazi Germany and the end of Second World War combat in Europe. This was one of the deadliest conflicts in human history. And so, it is important to remember the horrors of war and find ways to bring stability rather than be caught in an uncontrollable spiral. This is, in my view, the main message of Xi’s visit.

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