The new European Union Commission, in office since November last year, likes to talk of a “fresh start” for Europe. There is upbeat talk of streamlining EU actions, simplifying procedures, launching a new era of mega investment projects and revving up growth.
The reality is more complicated. The election in Greece of a new anti-austerity coalition government headed by Alexis Tsipras has highlighted growing dissent and anger in the Eurozone over the unrelentingly rigid fiscal policies imposed by Germany and followed by the EU.
The much-publicised 315 billion euro investment plan launched by the new European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker may look impressive on paper but is seen by many as too woolly to really generate the growth and jobs that Europe needs so desperately.
Additionally, the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris earlier in January means that the Far Right and anti-Islamic parties continue to gain traction and become ever more dominant in the debate on immigration.
It’s equally bleak on the foreign policy front. Relations with Russia remain tense. Although there is almost agreement among the 28 EU nations on the need to maintain sanctions against Moscow, depending on their national histories and experiences, European foreign ministers’ attitudes towards Moscow range from very tough (the Baltic states and some Central and Eastern European countries) to soft (Greece and Italy).
In the south, the EU is struggling to forge a coherent and meaningful strategy towards Turkey and its other Southern Mediterranean neighbours as well as the Islamic State (IS). European governments also remain divided over whether or not to recognise an independent Palestinian state.
Further afield, relations with Japan, South Korea and India remain largely lacklustre and uninspiring. Unlike US President Barack Obama, no European leader can claim to have a glamorous bromance with India’s celebrity Prime Minister Narendra Modi or Japan’s Shinzo Abe.
Not surprisingly therefore to many observers in Asia, EU foreign policy seems slow and plodding, focused almost exclusively on trade and business and not enough on a long-term strategy for closer political and security ties.
There is one striking exception, however: China. Surprisingly in a world of flux, EU-China relations remain relatively strong, vibrant and multifaceted even as Europe dithers over Russia, India and other emerging nations.
The point was made at a meeting of European think tanks in Brussels this week, with experts agreeing that Europe and China must up their engagement. Such consensus is rare in Brussels, especially among academics.
Certainly, it’s their mutual economic interdependence that keeps EU-China ties dynamic and buoyant. China’s growth rates may be slowing down but its appetite for European goods and investments continues to be crucial in determining the pace and success of Europe’s economic recovery.
China’s economic transformation — and plans for even more change in the coming years — demands that it has access to European know-how, experience and technology.
China’s reform agenda also gives European companies myriad opportunities for enhanced trade and investments. Both sides are negotiating a formal treaty to further boost mutual investment flows.
Increasingly, also in Brussels there is recognition that a deeper EU-China relationship is important in order to polish Europe’s foreign policy credentials.
Europe’s one-time ambition to shape China into a “responsible” international stakeholder now appears hopelessly out-of-date and patronising. But there is no doubt that the EU needs to engage with China on a range of urgent foreign and security policy issues including relations with, Russia, Iran’s nuclear plans, policy towards the IS, fighting Ebola and combating climate change.
Significantly, China has invested time, effort and money into upping its relations with Europe. Beijing is working on several tracks at the same time. The focus in recently years has been on further consolidating the China-Germany “special relationship” but also reinforcing ties with former communist nations in Central and Eastern Europe, countries in the Western Balkans and also Nordic states.
Responding to critics who complained that Beijing was paying too much attention to European member states and not enough to the EU, Chinese leaders have made it a point in recent months to visit Brussels.
The result is a surprisingly solid and well-rounded EU-China relationship which could even become a model for other Asian countries.
A key problem, however, is that the EU still treats China as just another emerging nation rather than the regional and global mammoth that it has become. The emphasis is on bread and butter issues like trade and investments, urbanisation, good and valid subjects but do not reflect Beijing’s increasing global clout and outreach.
The EU should be looking at thrashing out a new narrative for China which is truly strategic and considers issues like global governance, sustainable development goals and international terrorism.
In other words, as the EU and China prepare to celebrate 40 years of their relationship, the EU-China relationship should move from the ritualistic to the strategic — as quickly as possible.