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EU-China relations in times of Pandemics: beyond the narrative battle, EU’s future normative challenge

As the world is facing an unprecedented pandemic in contemporary politics, one may wonder what impact COVID-19 will have on European integration and the future of EU-China relations.


EUPLANT logo sat above the Erasmus+ logo which states 'with the generous support of the Erasmus+ programme of the European Union

Sarah Wolff
Director, Center for European Research
NEXTEUK Principal Investigator

As many countries are hesitantly and sometimes chaotically starting to relax the lock-downs, research teams are competing throughout the globe to find a vaccine. But the competition is not only a research-led and scientific one, it a (geo)politics struggle around norms.

Pandemics politics: a critical juncture for EU-China relations

When the virus hit Europe, many were those who celebrated the success of China in managing the lock-down in the Hubei province and predicted the end of the American empire. Europe’s initial response was seen as chaotic, uncoordinated and constrained by nationalist reflex to close borders. China appeared as a ‘hero’, playing some EU member states against each other, and sending medical teams and equipment to Italy. Chinese ‘politics of generosity’ was compensating Europe’s lack of solidarity.

This narrative was quickly showed to be wrong. Europeans reacted very quickly with issuing a new economic recovery plan, and in spite of internal divisions the Commission has been coordinating the European response way more quickly than in the Eurozone or migration crises. Also a new battle to re-establish the truth in diplomatic circles has started. The inaccuracies of Chinese deaths, as well as the illiberal practices that have emerged with the deaths of doctors fighting the virus and acting as whistle-blowers like Dr Li Wenliang who died of the virus show that this geopolitical battle is also about an battle about norms and prospects for democracy, and the future direction of the EU-China relationship.

The diplomatic battle of narratives

So far, speaking the truth about human rights with China has not been easy. The EU-China comprehensive strategic partnership and EU-China 2020 Strategic Agenda for Cooperation are broad political documents offering some common ground on key global challenges such as climate change and migration, which follows the principles of effective multilateralism, international law and universal values (link). But the EU has been perceived as a paper tiger when it comes to opposing the illiberal practices of China. Pragmatism and commercial interests have prevailed as demonstrated by China’s Belt Road Initiative expansion in Europe. Few observers such as George Soros have warned the EU of being too tender towards China, and not realising how much the government of Xi Jinping was going in the opposite direction of EU’s values. The pandemic could signal a change, albeit timid.

A battles of narrative has started, with China’s ambassador to France being summoned by the French Foreign Minister to explain critical twitters towards France’ handling of its senior citizens (politico). China has also been accused of influencing the German government to speak positively about its handling of the pandemic. Chinese pressure has also caused a row around a report from the European External Action Service (EEAS). Since 2014 and the propaganda that arouse around ISIS, the EU has put communication at the heart of its strategy, and especially the objective to fight disinformation and fake news which has surfaced in so many European and US election campaigns. If the report definitely identifies Russia and China are sources of disinformation, Josep Borrell was summoned in the European Parliament to explain why one of his staff would have softened the report in favour of Beijing.

EU-China relations post-pandemic

Beyond the narrative battle, what will a post-pandemic EU-China relations look like? First there is a clear rethinking needed about what type of economic model Europe’s want. Neo-liberal interests have so far weakened Europe’s normative ambitions in China. If Europe does not want to remain a paper tiger, a post-pandemic politics involve rethinking Europe’s current manufacturing dependency vis-à-vis. Rethinking the European economic model and the consequences of the pandemic on the supply and demand chain is a way to diminish that dependency. Developing shorter circuits of supply, more locally based would not only be wise from an environmental perspective but also help Europe to flex its muscles vis-à-vis China when it comes to human rights and criticising its illiberal practices.

The real issue is how the pandemics is testing political regimes. Some have already compared Chinese’ management of the crisis to Chernobyl’s. Although it is difficult to compare the powerful Chinese economy to the then declining Soviet Union, Chinese society has mobilised against authoritarianism and one should not forget the mobilisations in Taiwan. Similarly, if Europe is keen to remain a normative-liberal power in the world, it needs to pay attention to the state of its democracy. The unprecedented pandemic has led many countries to re-instore internal border controls in the Schengen area and to adopt measures such as states of emergency that seriously limit the freedom of movement (even within a same country), the right to work, to trade etc. Some observers are warry of new digital tools to track patients with coronavirus symptoms but most importantly, the extension of Orban’s unlimited powers (for an indefinite period) voted on 31st March have almost gone unnoticed in the midst of the pandemic.

The pandemic is thus a real health-crisis, and a health-test for our democracies and the future of the EU-China relation.



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