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German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives for a press conference in Berlin on July 22. She will not be seeking a fifth term in 2021. Photo: AFP

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
As Angela Merkel’s leadership of Germany heads into its final weeks, jostling is under way inside and outside the European Union to shape its future relations with China.
Her farewell tour featured a trip to Washington, a series of high-level summits with Western allies, and multiple meetings with top level American officials in Europe – each of which had China placed high on the agenda.
Also on the schedule was a series of calls with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, during which he was careful to remind her of Europe’s “ strategic autonomy” and independence from the US’ China policy, while she continued to seek out areas for collaboration.
It was typical of Merkel, who has for 16 years been the primary sponsor of a EU-China relationship that was weighted more heavily towards commerce than human rights.
But she leaves things delicately poised. A fierce backlash against China is rippling through the continent, as politicians, rights groups and media pressure authorities to take a firmer stand against human rights abuses and economic foul play.


Beijing hits back at Western sanctions against China’s alleged treatment of Uygur Muslims

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.

The first is that Merkel’s party’s candidate Armin Laschet tops September’s poll comfortably and pursues a similar strategy with China, despite resistance against such a policy from even within the Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
In May, it was frequently said that the CDU needed a cool summer, free from climate change-related events, to hold the Green Party at bay.
But its lead in the polls has slipped to 26 per cent, with the Greens gaining to 21 per cent, after catastrophic floods in western Germany left 164 dead and more than 100 missing.


At least 59 killed by floods in Germany after record rainfall lashes western Europe

At least 59 killed by floods in Germany after record rainfall lashes western Europe

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.

CDU leader and state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia Armin Laschet, the conservative candidate to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor, laughs as the German president (not in picture) delivers a speech during their visit to flood-hit Erftstadt on July 17. Laschet has since apologised for the gaffe. Photo: Pool via Reuters

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.

“Nato is an organisation that concerns the North Atlantic, China has little to do with the North Atlantic,” said Macron, in remarks greeted warmly in Beijing, but frostily in Washington.


Nato says China presents ‘systemic challenges’

Nato says China presents ‘systemic challenges’

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.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, French President Emmanuel and German Chancellor Angela Merkel hold a news conference at the Elysee presidential palace in Paris on March 26, 2019. Photo: Pool via Reuters

“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.

Xi, Merkel and Macron support EU-China investment deal, Beijing says

A war of words between the French and Russian ambassadors in Beijing this month, however, was a reminder that French authorities can be more forceful on human rights than their German counterparts.

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.

The subsequent mothballing of the deal by the European Parliament marked a second major defeat for Merkel on China policy, after her coalition government scrapped her plans to allow China’s Huawei Technologies Co to build Germany’s 5G mobile network.

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”.

As cracks continue to grow, EU says it might reconsider China relationship

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.

“Firstly, Macron has to fight hard to secure his political position. And secondly, Macron does not have the stature of Merkel to lead – the EU is 27 [nations]. It is not the Franco-German axis that rules Europe. Even now, an undisputed leadership of Merkel is totally not the case. It’s time for a change to more realistic ties with China,” said Bastiaan Belder, a former Dutch MEP who was the parliament’s rapporteur on EU-China relations.

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.

Other EU heavyweights include Italy’s Mario Draghi, but he is only suspected to be in the role for a short period, while Rome, the only Western European member of the Belt and Road Initiative, has flip-flopped on China policy in recent months.

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.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: EU ties on knife-edge as Merkel era nears the end