Nell’attesa che, a Dio piacendo, l’Unione Europea si liberi di Mr Juncker e di Mr Tusk, e magari anche della ingombrante presenza di Frau Merkel, la Cina prosegue imperterrita la sua penetrazione dell’Europa dell’est.
Questo incipit apparentemente tranchant constata come gli umori attuali del corpo elettorale si siano distanziati da detti personaggi in modo così marcato da renderli sicuramente legalmente in opera, ma screditati politicamente: rappresentano sé stessi, non l’Unione Europea.
«Sofia, Bulgaria hosted the annual China-CEEC think tank conference on June 29 under the theme of “Advancing 16+1 Cooperation Platform – the Way Ahead.” The conference was part of the official calendar of events of the 7th CEEC-China 16+1 Summit»
«The 16+1 was established in 2012 as a multilateral platform facilitating cooperation between China and 16 Central and Eastern European countries (CEEC).»
«In recent years, the platform’s summits have attracted a lot of attention, especially in Western Europe»
«The intensifying level of engagement between the 16 countries in the CEE region and China has considerably alarmed Brussels and Berlin»
«Many Western European observers and policymakers have raised concerns about the potential risks of growing Chinese presence in Eastern Europe, claiming that Beijing’s major interest in engaging with the region is a part of its long-term strategy to undermine EU unity»
* * * * * * * *
La dirigenza dell’Unione Europea ed i capi dei Governi delle nazioni più ricche stanno guardando con crescente apprensione il consolidarsi dei rapporti commerciali della Cina con i paesi dell’est europeo. Temono, a ragione, che alla lunga il baricentro politico ed economico si sposti verso la Cina.
Questi timori stanno aumentando giorno per giorno, e più che a ragione. Ma nella realtà dei fatti la Cina, nel costituire il Ceec, il 16 + 1, ha occupato uno spazio lasciato vuoto dall’Unione.
L’errore di maggiore portata è stato quello di voler imporre la propria Weltanschauung a paesi che proprio non ne volevano sapere.
Ottimo uno Zollverein, ottima un’Unione Europea di nazioni sovrane ma collegate da vincoli economici, pessima l’idea di voler trasformare questa Unione negli Stati Uniti di Europa a guida liberal e socialista. In casa propria la gente vorrebbe potersi gestire a piacere, secondo diritto e tradizioni. In fondo, gran parte del contenzioso con il Gruppo Visegrad e, più in generale, con il Ceec è ascrivibile a questo tentativo cruento, fallito sotto il peso di un Elettorato che ha mutato orientamenti.
Di non minore importanza è il fallimento economico dell’Unione Europea.
A costo di essere estremamente riduttivi, l’Unione Europea ha destinato ingenti risorse al mantenimento del welfare ed a quelle politiche di ‘integrazione’ che alla resa dei fatti non generano reddito, mentre la Cina fornisce investimenti per la messa in opera di infrastrutture, generatrici di reddito indotto.
Questa Unione Europea si è già parzialmente rinnovata nel Consiglio Europeo, suo sommo decisore politico, ed il risultato dell’ultimo Consiglio Europeo è sotto gli occhi di tutti: la componente avversa l’attuale dirigenza non è ancora sufficientemente forte da poter governare, ma lo è abbastanza da bloccare le iniziative degli attuali dirigenti,
Sarebbe da facili profeti il constatare che con una guida politica come l’attuale l’Unione Europea andrà incontro a fatti disgregativi.
Sofia, Bulgaria hosted the annual China-CEEC think tank conference on June 29 under the theme of “Advancing 16+1 Cooperation Platform – the Way Ahead.” The conference was part of the official calendar of events of the 7th CEEC-China 16+1 Summit that will take place in the Bulgarian capital on July 7.
The 16+1 was established in 2012 as a multilateral platform facilitating cooperation between China and 16 Central and Eastern European countries (CEEC). In recent years, the platform’s summits have attracted a lot of attention, especially in Western Europe. The intensifying level of engagement between the 16 countries in the CEE region and China has considerably alarmed Brussels and Berlin. Many Western European observers and policymakers have raised concerns about the potential risks of growing Chinese presence in Eastern Europe, claiming that Beijing’s major interest in engaging with the region is a part of its long-term strategy to undermine EU unity. This is by no means a new perspective, as these kinds of concerns have been raised multiple times since the platform’s establishment.
Meanwhile, the international situation has changed significantly during the last six years. China under Xi Jinping has changed its foreign policy course, intensifying its international presence in many parts of the world. The promotion of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as China’s major foreign policy tool has been accompanied by the advancement of local regional initiatives, such as the 16+1 platform. Simultaneously, China’s new international behavior has become one of the major points of contention among observers and policymakers looking at Chinese presence in places like Australia, New Zealand, and Czech Republic, just to name a few.
What is important to note is the emergence of certain trends highlighted by a number of experts during the Sofia conference. One of the dominant themes was the anticipation of some kind of breakthrough regarding the broader direction of China-EU relations and a need for the CEEC to find its “own voice” when it comes to bringing forward a desirable model of cooperation. This does not imply accepting Chinese investment and engagement without critical assessment, but it points toward a more fact-based approach to managing the region’s relations with Beijing. Uncertainty as one of the dominant themes of the current international situation and its impact on China-CEE-Western EU states trilateral relationship was said to be included in the draft version of the 16+1 Sofia Summit Declaration to be published after the main summit on July 7.
The opinions articulated by many experts during the 16+1 think tank conference in Sofia seem to present a counterpoint to the dominant Western European narrative about growing Chinese influence in the CEE and the region’s alleged inability to critically assess this new development. Experts from the region do have insights into the complicated nature of China-CEE relations. A lack of critical perspective is far from the biggest problem. Already, existing cases of business deals and political cooperation between China and some individuals or groups within CEEC should be considered more alarming. In other words, it is elite capture that should generate worry, rather than the general existence of the 16+1 platform itself.
The example of Ye Jianming, Czech President Milos Zeman’s economic adviser, is a case in point. The former CEO of Chinese energy giant CEFC has been under investigation in China for a couple of months now. A controversial figure himself, he was accused in the West of having ties to Chinese military intelligence. In China, he has been accused of having committed “economic crimes,” meaning high-level corruption. Although the investigation is still ongoing, it seems alarming enough to conclude that this is precisely the kind of relationship that should be looked out for when it comes to future projects between individuals or institutions from the CEE region and China.
Increased Eastern European interest in fostering ties with China could be seen as a purely pragmatic attempt to diversify the region’s international trade ties. Simultaneously, from the perspective of Berlin and Brussels, this new trend overlaps with the anti-progressive political turn among some Eastern European nations, most notably Poland and Hungary. While concerns about the region’s populist turn are indeed rooted in reality, there seems to be little evidence that this development is in any way related to the growing Chinese presence in the region.
It is crucial to bear in mind the way in which many CEE states might perceive Brussels and Berlin’s anxiety as somehow exaggerated. Chinese economic engagement in the region still has been marginal compared to other Asian investors, like Japan and South Korea, not to mention Western investors. Despite growing tensions, EU remains the most important political and economic partner of CEEC.
Nevertheless, Berlin has objected many times to the further development of the 16+1 framework. Most recently, German Chancellor Angela Merkel raised the topic during her visit to China in late May 2018. Shortly after the end of her visit, Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi met with his German counterpart in Berlin, where he suggested that Germany would be welcome to participate trilaterally in the 16+1 platform’s activities.
How could that change the decision-making processes and the bargaining power of each CEE state involved in the platform? Could it become a tool ensuring more accountability and transparency within its work? Or would it rather help to benefit the two largest partners, namely China and Germany? Declarations about China’s willingness to combine economic complementary advantages of China and Germany together with the CEE region’s developmental needs seem reasonable, yet their implementation might prove difficult. The same applies to finding a common ground to even start discussing certain problematic issues trilaterally.
Although the overall feeling of deepening divisions between Eastern and Western Europe and a general crisis of both EU as an institution and its transatlantic relations were all evident throughout the conference, constructive proposals for future development of the platform were also brought forward. But given the importance of the international environment, what might eventually be more important is the upcoming China-EU summit in late July. Brussels and Berlin expect Beijing to accommodate their anxieties, which are partially reasonable, but are also rooted in many misperceptions on the part of the EU. Most importantly, the EU should critically assess the overestimation of the scale of Chinese engagement in the CEEC. This does not mean that the issue of the political implications of Chinese presence in the region should be overlooked. It is not a non-issue, yet it should be assessed on the basis of a truly fact-based discussion, ensuring the agency of all parties involved.
Ahead of this July’s 16+1 summit in Bulgaria, Chinese officials are busy trying to sell the idea that Beijing’s outreach work in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) is about “win-win” cooperation. The summit, launched in Warsaw in 2012, brings together 16 CEE countries, including 11 EU member states, with high-ranking Chinese officials, ostensibly to foster economic cooperation and investment. Many leaders, pundits, and experts, however, fear that the Chinese-driven initiative is nothing more than a Trojan horse, threatening to undermine EU norms, disadvantage Western investors, and spread corrupt development practices amongst vulnerable democracies. But are they right or is this just European Sinophobia?
Though Beijing has been playing down the 16+1 initiative as a loose multilateral framework for cooperation between CEE and China, the reality of the situation falls somewhat short of even such understated rhetoric. A more honest depiction of the format, however, is the grouping together of bilateral partnerships through which China can more easily field competition for Chinese bank loans.
By its own admission, the 16+1 seeks to foster economic cooperation in the infrastructure sector. In other words, the initiative serves as a platform through which Beijing can implement Xi Jinping’s signature global infrastructure push, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The downside is that in place of bargaining collectively, as countries might be able to do through the EU, the 16+1 framework fosters competition in Beijing’s favor and reduces CEE countries to passive recipients of agendas and policies formulated by Chinese officials. Of course, this set up isn’t particularly healthy for the 16+1 countries themselves, but it’s also causing consternation and worry further afield in Western European capitals.
For one thing, in CEE countries and within the context of the Belt and Road more generally, Beijing tends to invest in sectors that are critical for national security, such as transport and energy infrastructure. For instance, in this year’s 16+1 summit host country, Bulgaria, the China National Nuclear Corporation has confirmed its interest in working on the Belene nuclear power plant project. Long tarnished by accusations of corruption, the Belene project has been under a construction moratorium since 2012 and has been described by Prime Minister Boyko Borissov as “the corruption scheme of the century.” Now, six years later, Borissov has made a complete about-face, and President Rumen Radev – who has been known to clash with the prime minister – has also expressed his support for the project.
Given the history of scandals surrounding Belene, it is unclear to many observers why the government has now decided to revive the project. The fact that Sofia is embracing the Chinese at the same time it’s breaking ties with AES and ContourGlobal, two American power companies responsible for a fifth of Bulgaria’s energy production, did little to assuage fears that the country is tacking east.
Of course, security-related concerns are not the only 16+1 related problem raising eyebrows in Brussels. The growing influence that Beijing is fostering through the initiative also threatens to undermine the very norms and values the EU seeks to foster in newly joined and aspiring member states.
Already, the grouping has triggered a race to the bottom for Beijing’s affections. Czech President Miloš Zeman has gone so far as to offer his country as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier for China in Europe,” while Hungary’s Viktor Orbán’s attitude toward Beijing might be described as positively fawning. Inevitably, this lust for economic attention from Beijing turns into subservience when it comes to Beijing’s political demands. In 2016, CEE diplomats insisted on watering down an already vague EU statement related to China’s illegal action in the South China Sea. In 2017, Hungary refused to sign a letter condemning the torture of detained lawyers in China, while Greece, a country that has also received considerable investment from Beijing, derailed an EU statement at the UN on China’s human rights record.
Aside from flying in the face of European values like respect for human rights, such acquiescence also breeds disunity at a time when the EU can suffer it least. Despite Beijing’s protestations to the contrary, a divided and politically weak EU clearly serves China’s strategic ambitions in Europe.
Unfortunately, the alliance of some CEE countries with Chinese political values is not purely a question of greed. For leaders like Orbán, who seeks to establish an “illiberal bloc” in the midst of Europe, Beijing’s brand of state capitalist authoritarianism provides a welcome model. Even CEE candidate countries like Serbia, which still harbor pro-EU political ambitions, find something attractive in the economic model that Beijing offers.
After all, while EU funds come with strong transparency and accountability requirements, loans from Chinese-controlled state banks are free from such cumbersome attachments. And while countries like Serbia are making slow progress toward EU membership requirements, corruption remains endemic. Because of Beijing’s “no strings attached” policies, loans from Chinese banks are comparatively easy to funnel into local patronage networks. Next to paperwork-heavy EU funds, they are a vastly more attractive prospect for local elites.
Beijing’s deepening footprint in the CEE region thus threatens to roll back progress toward transparency and good development practice that has hitherto been successfully sponsored by the EU. And not surprisingly, this growing preference for illiberal and corrupt practices has come at the expense of Western investors. In non-EU 16+1 countries, Beijing can attach conditions to its loans that require the participation of Chinese companies in projects, but even in EU member states, countries are flouting regulation in order to privilege easy Chinese capital.
Of course, if you listen to Chinese officials like Foreign Minister Wang Yi, you’ll hear a different story. His “win-win,” “mutual development” rhetoric is appealing, but it’s hard to see how the initiative outlined above can, as he claims, “facilitate the European integration progress.”