On November 1st the new European Commission took office in Brussels, a change in personnel that presents an opportunity for a shift in the EU’s approach to China. Yet, focusing on the priorities of the Juncker Commission and the hearings of Federica Mogherini and Cecilia Malmström in the respective Committees in the European Parliament, the new Commission’s stance seems to demonstrate a lack of attention and priority towards China.

The EU deals with China on a great variety of issues. However researchers overall criticise the EU’s Eurocentric approach, largely guided by norms that cannot be upheld in practice in general as well as regarding specific policies. Is the EU actually in the position to demand conditionalities, or – as is increasingly claimed – have power relations and dependencies shifted in favour of China? China is already now the EU’s second trading partner behind the United States while the EU is China’s largest trading partner. In this article, I will therefore take a look at the statements made by the newly inaugurated Commissioners as a first impression on the new Commission’s take on China. The Commissioners of particular interest are the President of the Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, the Vice-President/High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini and the Commissioner for Trade, Cecilia Malmström.

The Chinese view the new Commission as a chance to improve Sino-European relations, particularly regarding stronger economic ties and that Europe redeem its insistence on creating a multi-polar world. Chinese expectations include a more independent foreign policy from the United States, more collaboration and further negotiations with China. One of the enduring hot topics in EU-China relations is trade and particularly trade disputes dominated Karel de Gucht’s term as Trade Commissioner. Just recently anti-subsidy cases against two Chinese telecommunication companies, which allegedly benefited unfairly from illegal state subsidies, were dropped and Brussels sought to repair relations in this field. Regarding foreign policy, Mogherini’s predecessor Lady Ashton had voiced a very pragmatic position on China at the beginning of her term in 2010, advising member states to reconsider the arms embargo in place since the events on Tian’anmen Square, admitting to the economic priorities of the Chinese government as well as the limitations in EU success in changing the Chinese society. However, in practice little has become of these suggestions.

The new Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker is seen to possess a strong background on Asia and the priorities for his term regarding bilateral investment, free trade agreements and the creation of a digital single market for consumers and businesses are welcomed by Chinese multinationals hoping to gain better access to the European market. Juncker is deemed well acquainted with China and its leaders due to his background as former Prime Minister of Luxembourg as well as Head of the Eurogroup from which he gained experience in dealing with  Xi Jinping’s predecessors. In addition, Juncker paid China around ten visits – a symbolic of great significance in Chinese foreign policy culture. Juncker’s knowledge and awareness about the significance of China’s role in supporting the European economy in the recent past grants Juncker credit, however, in past statements Juncker has not always appeared accommodating on China but has rather asserted Europe’s strength. In 2010, Juncker, while acknowledging China’s rise to one of the major economic powers worldwide, urged China to take more responsibility in terms of monetary policy. Similarly, in 2011, Juncker has made it clear, that there will be no political `quid pro quo’ in turn for China’s financial assistance during the financial crisis.

Regarding the content priorities of Juncker’s Commission for the coming term, the guiding principle for foreign policy is headed “A Stronger Global Actor”. According to these guidelines, European foreign policy should be enhanced and create a stronger Europe external action, tools need to be more effective and better coordinated with other policy areas. As policy coherence is one of Juncker’s overall priorities, one could expect that the larger share of Commissioners will deal with China in one way or the other. However, during the hearings in the European Parliament preceding the acceptance votes by the parliamentary Committees, China was by large not deemed a very important topic – may that be the fault of the MEP’s asking the questions or of the designated Commissioners which in deed focused on their policy priorities while answering. China was most frequently mentioned in the Trade Committee, less so in the Committee on Foreign Affairs and only once more in the hearing of Commissioner Cañete with the Committee for Environment, Public Health and Food Safety, as well as the Committee for Industry, Research and Energy, in which Cañete stated to work with China regarding remissions and the Emissions Trading Scheme.

Federica Mogherini has been named Vice-President/High Representative of Foreign Affairs and Security Policy in the Juncker Commission and was questioned by the Members of the European Parliament in the Committee on Foreign Affairs. In Mogherini’s hearing on October 6, Russia and current crisis regions occupied a larger momentum. When China was mentioned, it was merely in relation to human rights. For instance, Mogherini promised human rights a central role in foreign policy, and aspires to not only raise the issue but to “make a difference in tricky talks” for instance with Azerbaijan, Iran and China. Human rights were cited as a compass in her work, as “part of [her] DNA”, which will not only be included because the clauses already exist. In practice, Mogherini aims to strengthen alliances with the civil society to ensure respect for human rights both within the EU as well as with its external partners and thereby enhance the credibility of EU foreign policy. However, action is still restricted to dialogue. Nevertheless, Mogherini does recognize the strategic relevance of Asia for the EU and aims to demonstrate the EU’s strategic value thereby making the EU equally relevant to Asian countries.

Cecilia Malmström, now taking over the trade dossier served as Commissioner for Home Affairs under Jose Manuel Barroso from 2010 to 2014. In her written answers to the European Parliament, she emphasizes European values such as democracy, human rights, peace and stability and environmental protection. European principles for trade equally apply to trade with China, and trade needs to be based on cooperation while following the rules of the game in order to achieve a level playing field. And even though in the case of Malmström, as in Mogherini’s, current events such as TTIP[1] and ISDS[2] were prevalent in the EP hearings, China was mentioned to a much greater extent in the Trade Committee. Malmström mentioned trade as a powerful foreign policy tool promoting values of peace, freedom and democracy. In terms of policy coherence. Cooperation with Mogherini was mentioned as well, how trade can be better integrated in foreign policy as well as the clear goal to work towards the implementation of fundamental rights, human rights, environmental and labour standards. Malmström furthermore committed herself to contain and in future further include sustainability chapters in trade agreements as well as increase efforts on human rights impact assessments. More coherent views when it comes to strategic partners such as China and a more strategic approach in general, but also regarding trade, were among her demands.

Malmström plans to further include the multilateral agenda into bilateral trade negotiations, especially with China. It would be an “important step” if China could be engaged in other pluri-national negotiations such as TISA[3]. China was cited as an important but complicated partner and the completion of the trade investment agreement in several cases named a priority. However, in response to complaints by Chinese officials, as China does not fulfil the criteria for the Market Economy Status, this cannot be granted and the timetable needs to be revised accordingly. However, discussions with member states and China will be held if China is willing to follow the set rules and comply with WTO regulations. Malmström however does not see this happening in the near future but remains optimistic that a solution could be found during her term.

A new term of the European Commission with new Commissioners and new overall priorities set out by Jean-Claude Juncker allude to change and renewal. However, it is not yet clear how and to what effect the Juncker Commission will implement these priorities. At the same time, problems on a more general level have hindered effective external action of the European Union, among them, the global financial crisis, internal pressures on the structure of the EU and disintegration tendencies, as well as frictions between EU diplomacy and national diplomacy. These may in part also explain why Lady Ashton’s pragmatic approach to China did not prevail. During the confirmation hearings in the European Parliament China’s importance to the European Union was evident in the Trade Committee, much less so in the Committee on Foreign Affairs. However, Mogherini and Malmström both did place emphasis not on the pragmatic approach put forward by Ashton, but rather on normative and value-based views and policies focusing on human rights – precisely the approach criticised by academia and policy-researchers. The Commissioners showed willingness to engage China, but if this approach is enough in the current changing world order will remain to be seen.



[1] TTIP is the abbreviation for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a trade agreement currently under negotiation between the USA and the EU.

[2] ISDS stands for Investor-State Dispute Settlement, a mechanism that grants an investor the right to use dispute settlement proceedings against a foreign government. The inclusion of ISDS within TTIP is disputed in the EU.

[3] TISA is the abbreviation for the Trade in Services Agreement currently under negotiation between 23 members of the WTO including the EU.

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