EU urged to adopt ‘invaluable Barnier method’ to deal with ‘belligerent’ China

Joe Biden's coordination with EU on China discussed by expert

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In January, the EU and China concluded in principle negotiations on an investment deal, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron playing an “active role” in driving through the accord. The pact came amid deep concerns about the Chinese government’s use of its economic clout to enmesh itself in Western countries. A European Commission statement said the agreement is of “major economic significance” and that China has “committed to an unprecedented level of market access for EU investors”.

Beijing indeed agreed to “work towards” meeting global standards on forced labour.

Chinese President Xi Jinping will join an EU-China leaders’ meeting in Brussels this year – another sign of growing links between the EU and China.

However, the package is causing havoc – not just in member states but even across the Atlantic, where Joe Biden’s new administration is under intense pressure to maintain former President Donald Trump’s curbs on China.

Sweden and the Netherlands have broken EU ranks in order to adopt a hard stance against Beijing.

The Nordic country has now booted out two Chinese companies, Huawei and ZTE, from supplying core 5G infrastructure.

On the other hand, this week, the Dutch Parliament has passed a non-binding motion saying the treatment of the Uyghur Muslim minority in China amounts to genocide – the first such move by a European country.

As unity in Brussels seems to crumble, Elvire Fabry, senior researcher at the Jacques Delors Institute urged the bloc to start using the “Barnier method” to deal with Beijing.

Michel Barnier has played an important role in shaping the future relationship between the EU and Britain.

Only a month after the UK voted to leave the bloc, Brussels announced he would be the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, under Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union.

For the 2020 trade talks, Mr Barnier was once again the main negotiator and despite months of tensions, the two sides reached an agreement on Christmas Eve.

Mr Fabry wrote: “Michel Barnier has won praise from across Europe for his leadership of the EU-27’s negotiation team during four-and-a-half years of Brexit negotiations.

“There was no precedent to deal with a country leaving the Union, so the former European Commissioner and his team broke new ground – in particular Sabine Weyand, now heading the Commission’s Directorate-General for Trade.

“Instead of focusing exclusively on the bilateral negotiations with the United Kingdom, they ensured from the outset that the negotiations were backed with strong political support from the member states.”

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According to Mr Fabry, this was necessary to prevent divisions between member states from weakening the negotiating position with London.

In their strategy, Mr Barnier and his team played a proactive role to build European cohesion beyond the negotiating mandate, he emphasised.

Ultimately, the December 2020 agreement was ratified by the Council over the course of a weekend.

The academic explained: “This was only possible because of the trust that had been established between the task force and the member states.

“For the past two years, the European Commission has been actively trying to level the playing field with China. However, so far, there is not enough political support for this strategy from EU member states, notably among business, administrative elites and civil society.

“There is not yet a European consensus on which policy should be pursued, which is perhaps reflected by China being simultaneously labelled ‘cooperation partner’, ‘economic competitor’ and ‘systemic rival’.

“The lively debate that was sparked by the signing of the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) on December 30, 2020, also bears witness to this.

“A lack of cohesion could become even more problematic, as the Biden administration is opening up new avenues for transatlantic cooperation on China, which has also revived the debate on the Union’s strategic autonomy.”

Mr Fabry noted how Beijing recently organised a new summit of the so-called “17+1” to strengthen ties with 12 EU member states and counter transatlantic rapprochement.

However, at the meeting on February 9, only six of 12 heads of state from the grouping’s EU members were present alongside President Xi Jinping, sending a signal of growing distance.

The academic concluded in his report for the Jacques Delors Institute: “To prevent the emerging conflict between China and the US from dividing the EU, a swift initiative is needed to forge a lasting consensus among the EU-27 on how to defend their interests.

“What can we learn from the ‘Barnier method’?

“Three priorities were decisive in the conduct of the Brexit negotiations: building trust through transparency, coordinating a strategic vision, and defending the single market so that it can be fully leveraged at the global level.”

Australia also does not seem at ease with the EU’s direction of travel when it comes to China.

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In an exclusive interview with, Australian Liberal Party Senator Eric Abetz fiercely criticised Germany and France for pushing for the investment pact, giving “credibility to a belligerent bully”.

Mr Abetz said: “It is very unfortunate.

“While I can understand trade should continue, I cannot believe they have done so and engaged in a new agreement when China has got one million of their own citizens in concentration camps.

“I think freedom-loving countries of the world should be pushing for reforms before they engage with Beijing as an equal partner, as China’s behaviour is completely unacceptable.”

He added: “I have no idea why Macron and Merkel pushed for it.

“They have basically given dictatorship a credibility that is not deserved.

“It was for the whole world to see how China treated Australia in recent times.

“China acts as a belligerent bully on the world scale.

“Why would you give them credibility by signing up to this agreement?

“It defies any logic and any principles.”

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