The right fit: EU-China institutional relations

Eu-China-jigsaw_smallThe European Union’s (EU’s) High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy and Vice President of the Commission Federica Mogherini was recently in China for an official two-day visit.

During her time in Beijing she attended high-level meetings, including with Prime Minister Li Keqiang, and also partook in the celebrations for the 40th anniversary of EU-China bilateral relations. Marcin Grabiec, First Secretary, Delegation of the European Union to China, looks at how EU-China institutional relations have developed since the first visit of an EU Commissioner to China in 1975.

The world has truly changed since 6th May, 1975, when Sir Christopher Soames became the first EU Commissioner to visit Beijing and agreed the establishment of diplomatic relations between the EU and China with then Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai. The world has changed and Europe and China have changed with it. The EU has increased in size from nine to 28 Member States, has seen the wounds of the Cold War healed and has torn down borders. The EU has spread prosperity among its citizens thanks to a single, integrated market. Now, as it turns the corner of a deep crisis, Europe has been able to show a stronger and more united face.

Forty years ago China was still recovering from the Cultural Revolution. The reforms and opening up, which would be key for its incredible economic development, were still unthinkable. Since then, China has lifted 600 million people out of poverty and has emerged among the concert of nations. China now faces the so-called ‘new normal’, an era that will be defined by the reshaping of its economic growth model to deliver structurally lower, but qualitatively higher and more sustainable growth.

Three years after the visit of Commissioner Soames, in 1978, the first trade agreement between the EU and China was signed. Back then, trade volume was slightly over Euro (EUR) 2 billion a year; today it is more than EUR 1 billion every day. The EU-China trade and investment relationship has become an important source of wealth, jobs, development and innovation for both sides.

In 1979, Roy Jenkins became the first president of the EU Commission to visit China, where he was received by President Deng Xiaoping. Since Jenkins’ visit there has been extensive high-level exchanges between Brussels and Beijing, but it wasn’t until 1998 that regular meetings between top leaders of the EU and China began, with the first EU-China Summit. Since then the EU and China have become increasingly interdependent. In 2003, the EU-China relationship was elevated to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. The High Level Economic and Trade Dialogue was established in 2009, and further complemented in 2010 by the political High Level Strategic Dialogue. These two pillars were finally completed by the EU-China High Level People-to-people Dialogue in 2012.

In March 2014, President Xi Jinping became the first Chinese Head of State to visit the EU institutions in Brussels, and in October 2014, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang met with the outgoing President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy and President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso.

Last year saw a new EU leadership being installed in Brussels, and EU-China contact further intensified. Following the visit of the President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, in April, and that of Vice President Mogherini in May, the EU and China are now preparing for their 17th summit in June and the High Level Economic and Trade Dialogue later this year. In addition, the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, has been invited by President Xi Jinping to visit China.

Despite these considerable achievements, there is no room for complacency. The EU and China are looking for ways to unleash the untapped potential of their relationship for mutual benefit, and after 40 years the relationship has become mature enough to allow frank discussions on issues where there are clear differences, including on human rights.

At the 2013 summit in Beijing the EU-China 2020 Agenda for Strategic Cooperation was agreed. It serves as a blueprint for the further development of strategic, economic, trade and people-to-people exchanges. It maps out cooperation in foreign and security policy, trade and economy, urbanisation, green growth, energy security, legal affairs and a large number of other issues, including human rights. The agenda will constitute the main document on which the EU-China summit—and the nearly 60 additional regular, high-level and senior official dialogues that underpin the summit—will be based for years to come.

So what lies ahead in 2015, a key year in EU-China relations? This is a crucial year for global climate change negotiations. An ambitious, legally-binding agreement is needed in Paris at the end of the year. This is a common and joint responsibility, one which carries huge expectations of people from all over the world. All eyes will be trained on the summit with the hope that the EU and China can agree an approach and display a common stance on this very important global issue.

The EU and China will continue to pursue negotiations for a Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI). Both sides are aware that this is a game changer, that should provide meaningful market access and investment protection in both directions.

There will be further discussion on the need to find synergies between their respective infrastructure and connectivity policies, such as the European Fund for Strategic Investment and China’s One Belt, One Road initiative. The summit in June should provide the opportunity to move ahead on this.

Follow up will also take place on the negotiations on the Iranian nuclear programme, together with the E3/EU+3 countries and Iran. Continuation of that work has already started on the technical details in preparation of find an agreement in the coming weeks.

Finally, in the context of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, the EU pays tribute to the enormous sacrifices made by the Chinese people and supports the efforts made in the region towards establishing a common, peaceful future – the best way to do this is learn from the lessons of the past.

The EU and China were very different 40 years ago, now they both share in the responsibility for global affairs. What further proof of a successful relationship is needed?