Call to respect EU unity as China builds ties with eastern Europe

European Union also hopes talks on investment pact will reach ‘decisive phase’ this year

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 January, 2018, 8:31pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 January, 2018, 8:30pm

The unity of the European Union should be fully respected as countries from central and eastern Europe edge closer to China, the EU ambassador to China said on Wednesday.

Hans Dietmar Schweisgut also called for Beijing and Brussels to make decisive progress on bilateral investment treaty talks this year, and to forge economic ties that are based on rules and transparency.

The China-led 16+1 grouping to build ties with central and eastern European countries through investment and infrastructure deals has been controversial within the EU since it was launched in 2012, amid concerns that Beijing is trying to create division by exerting its economic influence on smaller member states. Of the 16 European countries, 11 are members of the EU.

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But Schweisgut said at a press briefing in Beijing that 16+1 was complementary to the broader relationship between China and the European Union.

“They all know what being a member of the European Union means and implies,” said Schweisgut, adding that members’ decisions relating to EU policies were made in coordination with EU commissions and other institutions.

“There has never been any doubt that, obviously, completeness and the responsibilities of the EU have to be fully respected. This is what’s been done,” he said.

Schweisgut’s remarks come as the EU faces challenges ranging from the rise of far right groups to Britain leaving the bloc. French President Emmanuel Macron meanwhile – during his first official visit to China that wrapped up on Wednesday – vowed to lead the charge to build a strong EU in the face of competition from China and the United States.

Also at the press briefing on Wednesday, Bulgarian ambassador to China Grigor Porozhanov offered reassurance that European members of 16+1 had kept up a “very constant level” of communications with the European Commission.

“[This] is a very positive example of [bringing] together countries inside and outside the EU. We [participants] believe the platform has proved itself a good instrument to continue talking and monitoring competitiveness of the 16 countries,” Porozhanov said.

Bulgaria, which holds the presidency of the Council of the European Union, a role that rotates every six months, will this year host the annual 16+1 summit.

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This year will mark the 15th anniversary of strategic partnership between the EU and China, and also the 40th anniversary of China’s opening up.

But Brussels and European business have been disappointed with the gap between Beijing’s rhetoric and any concrete moves to further open up market access and offer investment reciprocity.

Beijing and Brussels started negotiations on a bilateral investment treaty – formally known as a comprehensive investment agreement – in 2014. The talks include negative lists on market entry restrictions, the status of state-owned enterprises in market competition, and the opening up of high-end services – but agreement on market access is still the most contentious part of the negotiations.

There have been calls for the two sides to reach a deal as it could lay the foundation for talks on a free-trade agreement between China and the EU.

“We do hope that 2018 will be the year of great progress – after 16 rounds of talks, we hope the [investment] talks move to the decisive phase to exchange offers,” Schweisgut said.

“Substantial progress on [the investment pact] will be a clear signal for China to deliver its commitment on opening up and reform.”

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Similar talks between Beijing and Washington during the administration of Barack Obama went nowhere because the US was dissatisfied with the many market restrictions imposed by China, and there has not been any sign since that the US wants to resume the negotiations.

Schweisgut said the EU needed to find equilibrium in its trade and investment with China, noting that fundamental changes had taken place in the past three years as Chinese economic power has grown, along with its strong appetite for EU technology.