This opinion piece was originally pulished in Asia Times.
Ahead of the 14 September 2020 EU-China leaders’ meeting, anxiety had been growing for some time. First, the eruption of COVID-19 was reason enough to cancel the physical summit – the so-called Leipzig Summit – and to opt for a videoconference. The reality, though, was that there was not much to agree on anyway.
Since the EU-China High Level Trade and Economic Dialogue ended in July 2019 without any relevant agreement and not even a communiqué, it has become clear that China’s economic policies are diverging further from the European Union’s expectations. Still, the Leipzig Summit was important for Chancellor Angela Merkel; not only was it to take place under the German presidency of the EU, it would probably be the last EU-China Summit she would chair, having been a tenacious China fan within the EU.
The Leipzig Summit, bringing together the 27 heads of state of the EU, could not have been a better platform to sign a deal on the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) between the EU and China, after seven long years of negotiations – even more so given that the agreed target for the CAI’s completion was 2020.
The reality, though, is that the CAI was not ready for the EU and Chinese heads of state to seal, nor were there any other relevant agreements at hand, either on climate change, standards, or COVID-19 cooperation – nothing concrete worth calling this videoconference an EU-China Summit.
As if this were not enough of an embarrassment for Merkel as its digital host, EU institutions, both through the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, and the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, referred in their introductory statements to the thorny issues of Hong Kong and Xinjiang, risking embarrassment for Chinese President Xi Jinping.
With such a political and highly contentious flavor for a digital summit, it has become obvious that EU-China relations have reached a new low. Very clear proof of the distancing of the two parties is that, regarding the CAI, Xi insisted on the 2020 deadline remaining intact, but von der Leyen made it very clear that a good deal was more important than a speedy deal from the European perspective.
Few concessions were made by China, or at least not those that the European leaders were expecting. Promises of more imports from Europe were made, in line with what Chinese negotiators offered US counterparts in order to reach an agreement for the Phase 1 trade deal, but there was no agreement on further market access, and even less was said about a reform of China’s economic model, which the Europeans continue to describe as state-led capitalism.
With such a mercantilist offer – imports instead of market access or reform – and a reminder that the EU should not meddle on China’s internal issues, whether it is Xinjiang, Hong Kong or its particular economic model, the meeting ended without any notable conclusion.
I really wonder why this EU-China digital summit had to be held, knowing that positions were so far apart. It’s likely that only the US administration is rejoicing about the outcome.