Unified in voice but not in agenda, Emmanuel Macron, Ursula von der Leyen take flak over summit in Beijing
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A trip to Beijing by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and French President Emmanuel Macron has been met with varying interpretations by allies and confusion among lawmakers in the EU.
The two leaders were anticipated to be aligned and act as one voice from Europe, but their statements were viewed as contradictory, especially when they centered on difficult questions about Taiwan, the Ukraine war, and Russia — a Chinese ally and strategic partner.
The trip highlighted the challenges faced by the EU in developing a unified stance toward the Asian superpower.
The focus of von der Leyen’s visit was investments and human rights. She held talks with Chinese Premier Li Qiang and signed a comprehensive agreement on investment between Brussels and Beijing.
The deal aims to provide European companies with greater access to the Chinese market, establishing a level field of competition but it faced criticism from EU lawmakers and human rights activists who argue that it was signed without sufficient consultation and ignored China’s poor human rights record.
But, the top EU official was not the only one to draw ire. During Macron’s visit, comments rippled through the media as he emphasized China’s need to address its human rights violations while avoiding mention of the “One China” policy under which Beijing sees Taiwan as its territory.
The French president reiterated support for Taiwan’s political status quo and its participation in international organizations, along with his desire to forge closer ties with the island nation.
Macron argued that the EU needed to “create the conditions for more strategic autonomy,” including on China. “As Europeans, is it in our interest to accelerate (a crisis) on Taiwan? No,” he was quoted as saying.
“The worst thing would be to think that we Europeans must become followers on this topic and take our cue from the US agenda and a Chinese overreaction.”
This was a statement that analysts are convinced was not well received by the White House and, given the sensitive nature of the Taiwan issue in US-China relations, any response from Washington would likely be measured and carefully considered.
The comment overshadowed Macron’s talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping, with a range of issues on the agenda, including trade and cooperation on tackling climate change.
Noting that China is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, according to the UN, the French leader urged Beijing to play a greater role in global governance and expressed concern about the human rights situation in the western Xinjiang region and Hong Kong.
Surprisingly, von der Leyen avoided statements on Hong Kong and Taiwan but confirmed that human rights discussions took place.
Avoiding hot topics may have been a deliberate move as the EU works to maintain a delicate balance between its economic interests in China and its security concerns.
Von Der Leyen was clear on the importance that the EU placed on China’s position concerning the ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia in its backyard.
“China’s position on this is crucial for the Europe Union. As a member of the UN Security Council, there is a big responsibility, and we expect that China will play its role and promote a just peace, one that respects Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. I emphasized in our talks today that I stand firmly behind President (Volodymyr) Zelenskyy’s peace plan,” she said.
“I also welcomed some of the principles that have been put forward by China. This is notably the case on the issue of nuclear safety and risk reduction, and China’s statement on the unacceptability of nuclear threats or the use of nuclear weapons. We also count on China not to provide any military equipment, directly or indirectly, to Russia.”
Beijing stoking EU division?
Media outlets in the EU have suggested that China has attempted to divide the bloc, catering more to Macron than von der Leyen.
The French president received greetings and six hours with Xi, while the EU Commission head got a ceremony and just a short-lived meeting.
Political analysts questioned whether it was China doing the dividing or a struggle by the EU to develop a unified foreign policy, taking into account the EU’s diverse 27-country membership, each with its own national interests and priorities.
This forced a European Commission spokesperson last Tuesday to do convincing of a unified meeting when the two EU leaders met Xi — avoiding comments on divisions that emerged.
“The messaging which came out of that trilateral meeting was very consistent,” said Eric Mamer.
While the spokesman attempted to defend what many called a public relations disaster at the summit in China, Macron’s comments left a senior Taiwanese official “puzzled” and prompted outrage from the US and China hawks in Europe.
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