The EU must speak with one single voice

Hilde Vautmans MEP
flags of EU and China painted on cracked wall

Belgium (Brussels Morning Newspaper) The visits to China by European leaders in the last weeks should have been a display of a strong and united Europe. It proved to be anything but. Years ago, Henry Kissinger asked himself: ‘Who do I call if I want to call with Europe’? Now our citizens and China’s political leaders ask themselves: Who is talking for Europe?

Only in the last six months, German Chancellor Scholz, Commission President Michel, Spanish Prime Minister Sanchez, French President Macron, Commission President von der Leyen, German Minister Baerbock, they all visited China. Our High Representative Borrell also planned to go. They all delivered their own specific message. Instead of going to China one by one with different messages, they should decide on one message for Europe and then go together! Only then, Europe will be strong enough to talk to China.

As European leaders delivered contradictory views on the EU’s China policy and the urgent situation in the Taiwan Strait, China did not take their concerns seriously. In the same week when European leaders visited China, the Chinese army simulated missile attacks on Taiwanese cities with over 100 warplanes and ships, and China sentenced two prominent human rights defenders. Instead of condemning Putin’s brutal war of aggression in Ukraine, China’s defence minister is meeting his Russian counterpart in a latest display of close Moscow-Beijing relations. Clearly, if we act divided and do not speak with one single voice, the EU is ineffective and not credible on the international stage.

The European Union cannot afford this lack of strategic vision during a critical time for EU-China relations. More than ever, the Chinese Communist Party’s ambitious political agenda and assertive foreign policy prove to be a threat not only to our liberal order, but also to our European interests and values. China’s stance on Ukraine and on the sovereignty of Taiwan will affect the security and prosperity of our citizens. 

More than ever, we need a common strategic vision

The European Parliament has in fact set out such a strategic vision. When Parliament approved my rapport on a more assertive EU-China strategy, it was very clear. The EU should be less naive in dealing with China. China is a partner, but also a systemic rival and a competitor. Therefore, we called for a common European response. Because only if the EU acts with one common policy, one common strategic vision, and delivers one common message, can we defend our European values towards an assertive China.

Since the adoption of the report, China has only reinforced its international assertiveness and its more aggressive domestic policy. It continues to buy influence and control over resources in third countries, with infrastructure investments by pouring money into regimes that trample on human rights. It has dismantled the democracy of Hong Kong and continues to repress the Uyghur population in Xinjiang. On Taiwan, China has made more and more aggressive statements about overturning the status quo. Even within Europe, China furthers its political agenda. Its operation of illegal police stations in 13 Member States, the threatening of former China correspondent Marije Vlaskamp, and the spreading of fake news on the war in Ukraine uncovered by EUvsDisinfo are only some examples. 

A common response

In the face of these major challenges, we cannot be played by the Chinese Communist Party’s divide-and-rule tactics. Because we can only defend our China European values and interests if we act united. I am convinced that there is however a broad consensus within the EU on key substance. We will not accept Chinese military support for Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine. We will not accept the use of force in the Taiwan Strait. We will not turn a blind eye to systematic human rights violations within China. However, we remain open to cooperate with China on global challenges such as climate change. China is simply too big to ignore in our fight against global warming as it emits a third of the world’s greenhouse gases.

In the economic field, we must build up our strategic autonomy. This means decreasing our dependencies and vulnerabilities in fields such as critical raw materials. If Russia’s war in Ukraine has taught us anything, it is that Europe cannot rely on countries that don’t share our values. Let us not make the same mistake twice. Europe dangerously depends on China for the critical materials that are essential for our green and digital transitions and products such as electric cars, solar panels and chips. For 98% of our rare earth supply and 93% of our magnesium supply, we rely on China. If strategic autonomy is to be more than just a theoretical concept, we must rapidly reduce our dependencies

Underpinning this common response, we must ensure consistent messaging. We can only credibly defend our European values and interests, if we speak with one single voice. EU-representatives and Member States must therefore end their internal bickering on China-policy. Because the truth is simple: Europe cannot afford the luxury of being divided on China. There is too much at stake.

About Us

Brussels Morning is a daily online newspaper based in Belgium. BM publishes unique and independent coverage on international and European affairs. With a Europe-wide perspective, BM covers policies and politics of the EU, significant Member State developments, and looks at the international agenda with a European perspective.
Share This Article
Hilde Vautmans is AFET coordinator for Renew Europe (Open Vld) in the European Parliament and member of the FEMM Committee.