In-depth Interview With…

Jörg Wuttke
Jörg Wuttke

Jörg Wuttke, European Chamber President and founding member, BASF China Chief Representative and Vice President

What were the main reasons for forming an EU chamber, when national chambers were already established?

In 1999, when China was negotiating its World Trade Organization (WTO) accession with Europe, Pascal Lamy, who was the European Trade Commissioner, attended a meeting at the European Union (EU) Delegation to China and said something along the lines of, “I don’t want to meet Germans or Italians or French, I want to meet insurance, I want to meet chemicals and I want to meet banking.” I and others felt that this approach made a lot of sense, and that we should try to establish something along those lines. So, 51 of us determined Europeans founded the European Chamber, which then was agreed to be complementary with the national chambers. I was then on the German Chamber board, and I could feel some resistance from the bilateral chambers, in the sense of “why do we want a new kid on the block?”

With people like [former presidents] Peter Batey and Ernst Behrens, we felt the proposition we had was something that the national chambers could not cover. The conditions under which this was accepted was that companies had to have membership of their national chamber in order to become a member of the European Chamber. With this straight jacket, we started our show in 2000. During my previous terms as president, I worked to remove this condition in 2008 and, after initial wariness, the European Chamber now has a good relationship with the national chambers.

After having personally launched seven position papers, did they really make any difference?

I think that they have made little difference to the Chinese authorities when you really look into what’s been implemented. But they have had a huge impact on the Chamber’s self-confidence and pride, and we speak the truth. I think that’s where we make a difference, because it is a much sought-after and well-read document by Chinese officials. We produce a huge amount of content, the language we use is technocratic, and it is an unbiased, bottom-up assessment from industry. So, from the Chinese side, they clearly have great respect for us, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to give us anything free of charge.

What it also does, is that it puts us on the map when it comes to member states, Washington and Tokyo –we really set the benchmark. So, I would say it makes a difference with our governments, it makes a difference in that it really promotes awareness of our Chamber and it promotes self-awareness among our members. I think it really shows that we care about China, we know what we are talking about and that we really see the potential for China to change.

Do you feel that interacting with the European Chamber is considered important by the Chinese authorities ?

During the COVID-19 outbreak, government communication endured, even at its peak in March 2020. Several high-profile virtual meetings were held between the European Chamber and Vice Minister Wang Shouwen of the Ministry of Commerce in March that allowed for very frank and direct communication on key issues.

All of the European Chamber’s seven chapters have enjoyed unprecedented access during the outbreak to local leaders, who have been forthcoming with key information during a variety of different meetings. Such opportunities are meaningful to European companies that are eager to develop clarity on policy. Furthermore, these meetings have already produced some tangible results, such as the creation by MOFCOM of a new communication mechanism with the Chamber..

The European Union marked 45 years of diplomatic relations with China in May 2020. How is the pandemic impacting EU-China relations?

At the turn of the new decade, the EU-China relationship was under serious strain: China’s ‘17+1’ scheme was a major irritant to Paris and Berlin in particular; Huawei was a significant bilateral conflict bubbling under the surface; and China’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative was revealed as being far less universally beneficial than had been previously portrayed by China.

Yet there was real hope that the new EU Commission, along with a China-focussed European Council in the second half of 2020, could reinvigorate relations. Chancellor Merkel was lining up the September Leipzig summit to seal the long-negotiated EU-China investment agreement.

Then came COVID-19. Nobody knows, of course, how the COVID-19 pandemic will end up changing Europe-China relations in the long term. Member states are in national self-isolation. But everyone recognises that this crisis is too good to waste. In the best case, it might just be a moment of breakthrough to more European solidarity between the northern European and southern European members of the Eurozone, which will be crucial to a larger renewal of the EU.

The noun ‘crisis’ comes from the Latinised form of the Greek, ‘krisis’, meaning ‘turning point in a disease’. At such a moment, the person with the disease could get better or worse: it is a critical moment. The current situation calls for bold decisions by both the EU and Chinese authorities that could change the face of globalisation forever. We urge them not to waste this crisis, and instead treat it as the turning point that it is.

What role do you envision for the European Chamber in the post-COVID-19 future?

When COVID-19 appeared in China, we continued to fulfill our mission, both in China and overseas with our annual EU Tour. We kept our offices open, as allowed under local regulations, while implementing home/virtual office solutions where needed. We launched a ‘VIP Webinar Series’ with the world’s leading industry experts, scholars, political consultants and strategists to keep our members up to date on the latest stances, opinions and approaches to dealing with the rapidly changing pandemic situation.

Equally vital for the Chamber is the need to fill the void left by our partners in the EU and its member state governments, who now have their hands full with their own outbreaks. Major meetings like the Brussels High-level Economic Dialogue, the Beijing meeting with Executive Vice President Timmermans and the EU-China Summit have already been cancelled or postponed. It is therefore our duty to enhance our advocacy and keep up the pressure to conclude a meaningful Comprehensive Agreement on Investment by the Leipzig Summit in September.

The European Chamber continues to move forward during times of great uncertainty, with a strategy of preparedness, action and solidarity. We cannot predict the future; but we can shape it.

Now more than ever, European companies need to be engaged with government stakeholders both in China and back home. We at the European Chamber will continue to provide the best platform in China for the business community to do just that, and I am eager to see our members, the Chamber secretariat, and the Executive Committee rise to the challenges on the horizon, just as we have done for the last two decades. The European Chamber will continue to speak up because that’s the theme for this year. We are advocating for the future.