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Former European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Chinese president Xi Jinping

Covid-19 crisis affecting China influence in Europe

Just when China influence over Europe seemed to expand into full blast, the Covid-19 crisis seems to have put a serious stop to it. The biggest geopolitical prize in the raising USA – Chinese challenge is the European Union, formerly anchored securely in the Western side but in recent years increasingly uneasy about Trump administration and its USA-centric policies and therefore open to Chinese influence and business.

China and the EU have been renegotiating the terms of their relationship since the early 2010s. In 2013, they signed a “Strategic Agenda for Cooperation,” in which they committed to deepening their cooperation on a range of issues and to signing a joint investment agreement by the end of 2020. The year 2020 was meant to be pivotal for the future of EU-China relations.

Analysts had been hoping 2020 would bring more clarity to any future partnership between two of the world’s largest economies. Brussels and Beijing had planned to conclude long-running negotiations for an investment agreement by the end of the year, with an eye towards launching negotiations for a bilateral trade deal. To that end, a set of key events were scheduled to take place in 2020.

Representative of the Delegation of the European Union to China (EEAS) have recently said to press that no high-level meetings or summits had been canceled, but that “the situation is obviously evolving day by day.” However The European Commission and the EEAS “have suspended all non-essential missions to China” until Feb. 16, the spokesperson said, and “recommended that all non-essential visits and meetings coming from China are to be temporarily postponed.”

The epidemic isn’t entirely to blame for the slow pace of negotiations (paywall). “It already wasn’t looking good even before the Coronavirus,” says Andrew Small, a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund. The EU and China have yet to agree on major aspects of the deal, including how to give European businesses greater access to Chinese markets, and how to settle any eventual disputes.

As the pandemic’s epicenter moved from Wuhan to European countries such as Italy and Spain, China made some initial positive moves such as sending to Europe big shipments of face masks and other medical equipment, adorned with Chinese flags. Some of this gear turned out to be shoddy, but people saw it as a nice gesture.

Shortly afterwards however, China began spreading disinformation, apparently intended to paint the EU’s democracies as inefficient and authoritarian China as comparatively strong. In France, the Chinese embassy posted on its website a wild accusation that French retirement homes leave old people to die.

In Italy, Chinese sock puppets disseminated tales that the coronavirus had in fact originated in Europe, or doctored video clips to show Romans playing the Chinese anthem in gratitude. In Germany, Chinese diplomats (unsuccessfully) urged government officials to heap public praise on China.

In response, the EU’s diplomatic service assembled a report on the disinformation campaigns being waged by China and that other usual suspect, Russia. China promptly made a bad situation worse, leaning on the publication’s authors to tone it down. At this, members of the European Parliament looked at this as an aggravation and demanded assurances that the EU will not self-censor under Chinese pressure.

In some European countries, these tensions aren’t new, even before the coronavirus. Even before the pandemic, in fact, Europeans were becoming disappointed by the one-sided nature of these “partnerships,” both economically and politically. And China’s largest trading partner in Europe, Germany, has also put up its guard after several Chinese companies took stakes in German technology firms ranging from a robot maker to a power company. Last year, Berlin tightened the rules on such sensitive acquisitions. The EU followed suit, with a common investment-screening approach taking effect this year. Meant to preserve Europe’s technological and industrial autonomy, it implicitly aims to keep China at bay.

For all of this, Beijing only has itself to blame. Somehow, Chinese officials have managed to offend Europeans across the continent who usually agree on nothing. How ironic, however, if the final strain stopping the raising influence of China over Europe would be caused by a virus coming from China itself.

Source: various agencies

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