In the past few years, the EU has had a complicated relationship with China. While the EU has been looking to strengthen its business relationship with the Asian nation so as to ensure that its own economy keeps growing at a steady pace, these efforts have not produced the desired results as China continues to practice unfair trade policies.
On top of that, Beijing is seeking to expand its influence in Europe, something that has made the leaders of many EU nations worried. Until around 2019, the EU’s view of China was rather neutral. Though the EU saw China as a difficult nation, the latter was regarded as a strategic partner given its economic size and potential. Starting last year, things began to change. The EU is currently looking at China in three different ways.
Firstly, as a partner with which it can deal with certain issues. Second, as a competitor that threatens to displace Europe as an economic and technological powerhouse. And finally, as a rival that promotes an alternative authoritarian governance model that seeks to displace the EU’s democratic model. With such a change of views, the European Union is becoming increasingly active in countering Chinese influence in the region, specifically targeting “Belt and Road” (BRI) projects and company takeovers.
The Belt and Road Initiative
Beijing sees the BRI project as a way to get some of the poorer European nations into its camp. For instance, the Balkan region nations have all signed up for various BRI projects. As a result, countries like Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, and North Macedonia have all received loans from China. Serbia alone is said to have secured close to US$9 billion in loans and investments from Beijing. By making such massive investments, the Chinese regime is betting on gaining the support of these nations in the EU, thus having a say in the political as well as business policies implemented in the region.
The EU has realized that they cannot allow the Chinese to get a firm footing in the Balkans. According to reports, the organization is planning to offer guarantees of US$23.5 billion over the next 10 years so that the Balkan nations can get easy and cheap funding. Jonathan Hatwell, head of the China division at the EU’s diplomatic arm, notes that the organization needs to improve its communication with the Balkan region to resolve any incorrect perceptions.
“What gives rise to the potential concerns in the region is the interplay between the substantial and not always transparent Chinese investments and the currently relatively weak institutional framework [in the Western Balkans]… We need to up our game in terms of communication because there is this mistaken and slightly bizarre and frustrating perception in the region, and we saw that again recently in relation to the support of the pandemic, that the EU is doing very little in these countries and China is doing a lot. If you actually drill down into the figures, the reverse, if anything, is true,” Hatwell said, as reported by TFI Post.
A major concern among European lawmakers has been the Chinese takeover of critical local companies. The EU Commission recently decided on conducting tougher checks on all foreign investments flowing into the region, especially from China. An EU investment agency can now potentially stop a foreign investor from taking control of European tech companies using “Golden Shares,” which refers to a type of share that gives its owner veto powers over certain transactions like mergers. In addition, the EU will also scrutinize foreign subsidies to ensure that European companies are not subjected to unfair competition.