After Merkel, who? China and EU ties on a knife-edge as German chancellor says long goodbye
- For 16 years, Angela Merkel spearheaded a EU-China relationship leaning more towards commerce than human rights
- Amid pressure to tackle rights abuses and economic foul play, the 27-nation bloc faces being caught between sparring superpowers minus its most seasoned referee
Beijing hits back at Western sanctions against China’s alleged treatment of Uygur Muslims
Europe finds itself caught in the middle of two sparring superpowers and will soon be without its most experienced referee. As it bids auf Wiedersehen Angela, players on all sides are wondering who will fill the void she leaves behind.
China will be hoping for a leader that maintains the status quo. This would likely come through two scenarios, but both come with complications.
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Laschet’s own popularity has fallen to 17 per cent, according to a study by Forsa, after he was caught chuckling on camera during a televised presidential address on the floods. The Green party’s Annalena Baerbock and Social Democrat Olaf Scholz polled 19 per cent and 18 per cent respectively, while 45 per cent of respondents said they didn’t like any of the candidates.
It looks likely that the Greens – which advocate a tougher stance on China – will play a major role in the next coalition with Laschet leading. But even then, it will take some time before he carries the authority of Merkel at the EU.
“I think he will need some time. He’s really a more skilled politician than people think. You don’t get where he is by not being skilled and there is some resemblance to Merkel in the sense that he tends to be the calm one who ends up winning in the end. But he doesn’t know and has not socialised with all of these heads of government,” said Jonathan Hackenbroich, a policy fellow for economic statecraft at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Beijing’s other preference would be French President Emmanuel Macron assuming Merkel’s mantel on the European stage, then winning his own re-election next year. Macron has been a strong devotee of the concept of strategic autonomy – a fact noted with suspicion in Washington.
One senior Hong Kong official described Macron as a “top statesman” and said they were less concerned about the German election than the French.
After all, they said, the Germans can be trusted to preserve the strong commercial bond with China regardless of who succeeds Merkel, whereas the situation would be less clear-cut in France, should Marine Le Pen or Xavier Bertrand replace Macron next Spring.
The argument was made shortly after Macron lashed out at Nato’s decision to designate China as a “systemic challenger” for the first time in June – but only after he gave the green light to the communique that contained it.
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Jiang Shixue, a professor following EU-China relations at Shanghai University, said there are “two conditions to being a major sponsor of close EU-China ties”.
“[They must be] a big player in European affairs, and have a correct attitude towards China. Merkel and Macron do meet the two conditions. Germany and France will always be the major countries in the EU. So let’s hope that the future leaders of these two countries will maintain a correct attitude towards China or be friendly to China,” said Jiang.
For two years now, Macron has been by Merkel’s side through a series of dealings with China.
The pair held two trilateral calls with Xi this year, while Macron was infamously, and to the chagrin of other member states, present as the EU and China agreed in principle on an investment deal, during the last days of Germany’s EU presidency in December 2020.
“It’s quite clear that Merkel is doing a kind of extended handoff to Macron. It is a little as if Merkel thinks there needs to be another head of government in Europe, who can effectively occupy the kind of special role that she had,” said Andrew Small, senior transatlantic fellow with the US-headquartered German Marshall Fund’s Asia Programme.
“As the Chinese know, the president of France or the chancellor of Germany is a figure with more clout on all of these questions than the president of the European Commission, and so you are kind of getting this shift in the way that the way the China portfolio is being handled,” he added.
Laurent Bili, the French envoy, accused China of exporting its model of authoritarianism, saying that for the past year, “we have [seen] direct attacks to our freedom of expression in our country, with some attacks to society, to some journalists and that raised a lot of questions. That is a real question.”
For some observers outside the axis, however, there is no real alternative.
“France, Germany and the commission. That’s where I’d like to see it coming from – the rest of us will follow. And I must say that I think the French and the Germans have been quite good and fairly balanced with the relationship with China as well. So I would give them kudos on that,” Alexander Stubb, the former Finnish prime minister, told the Post.
But it also has its detractors.
When the triumvirate announced the completion of the investment deal in December, many parts of Europe were shocked. Officials from Belgium, Lithuania and Poland pushed back, while the Netherlands was also said to be upset by how it was sprung on them without consultation.
Members were even more aggrieved in June when Macron and Merkel tried to force a reset in relations with Russia.
“Merkel and Macron are either clueless or have learned nothing from 80 years of history and the nations betrayed by the Germans. Without even talking to other EU countries. Exactly like their forebears. I say that knowing full well what I say,” tweeted former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves at the time.
A senior European diplomat said of the bungled affair that “I have some sympathy with the point they were making but the approach was cack-handed and they deserved the rebuke they got”.
There is a view among many politicos that with Merkel gone, neither Macron nor Laschet would get away with such chicanery, particularly with the tide of public opinion turning so much against China.
“Laschet would want to maintain the same China policy as Merkel, but it’s going to be more difficult for him. I think there’s quite a lot of pressure and Merkel, because of her authority, and her cooperation with Macron, has been able to withstand it. But I think after Merkel it’s going to be much more difficult to withstand that kind of pressure,” said Frans-Paul van der Putten, coordinator of the Clingendael China Centre at The Hague.
Fewer EU countries are as economically dependent on France as they are on Germany, while Merkel is renowned for levels of horse-trading and cat-herding among member states that both men have yet to achieve.
It is difficult, however, to see beyond the Franco-German axis, although Belder – and many others linked to the parliament – would like to see a democratisation of foreign policy leadership.
The EU’s two longest serving leaders post-Merkel will be Mark Rutte of the Netherlands and Hungary’s Viktor Orban. The leadership prospects for Orban, the bête noire within the EU’s borders, can be discounted immediately.
Dutch foreign policy is undergoing a recalibration, with the Netherlands traditionally standing closer to Britain and America than France and Germany. Its Indo-Pacific policy was formative in shaping the EU version launched this year, and political analysts say Rutte may try to assert more influence on China policy going forward.
“The reorientation of Dutch foreign policy stimulates the Dutch government to play a more active role at the EU,” said van der Putten. “But the other side of the story is that I don’t think there is an alternative for Germany, or Germany in combination with France.”