A good indication of whether the EU attaches significance to a particular issue can often be found in its readiness to sacrifice the idea of European unity, a contemporary conceit that emanated from the apparent general desire for peace in Western Europe after the Second World War, and on which the cornerstone of the European project was laid. Such is the obsessed conviction – on the part of the EU – of a politically united Europe and a common “European front” that, despite the many differences in the views of the 27 member states, the European Union would seldom allow the host of differences to rise to the surface. This unity-trumps-all approach to diplomacy and politics could be observed during the Brexit negotiations a couple of years ago: in spite of their different bailiwicks in which their varied economic and political interests lay, the EU 27 member states had all in all remained united throughout the negotiations. Thus, when the foreign minister of Germany, the EU’s biggest member, ventured out to publicly slam Hungary, a fellow member state, for cuddling up to Peking, one would know that the European Union has made its bed when it comes to tackling China.
On Monday German foreign minister Heiko Maas decided that his country had had enough and lambasted Hungary for an “absolutely incomprehensible” decision to block an EU statement accusing Peking of cracking down on democracy in Hong Kong. “This is not the first time that Hungary has broken away from [the EU’s] unity when it comes to the issue of China […] On the substance, we think this is absolutely incomprehensible,” Maas told reporters after last week’s meeting of the EU Foreign Affairs Council. “It is important that especially toward China – after the sanctions that have been imposed and also after the sanctioning of EU parliamentarians – the European Union speaks with one voice. Unfortunately, this has been prevented by Hungary.”
It was a dramatic change of tone for the EU. Only a few months ago Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, said that it would be counter-productive for western powers “to join all together against China.” Earlier this year, at the Davos World Economic Forum, Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, downplayed Joe Biden’s call for Europe to pick sides between the US and China and spoke out against the “building of blocs”: “I don’t think it would do justice to many societies if we were to say this is the United States and over there is China and we are grouping around either the one or the other.” Merkel then went on to say she “agreed” with Xi Jinping. “The Chinese president spoke yesterday, and he and I agree on that. We see a need for multilateralism,” she said. Merkel’s pro-China speech at the forum was soon followed by the announcement of the European Commission that the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with China was “concluded in principle” by the leaders of the Council, pending ratification by the European Parliament. Ironically, the same Germany that, only five months ago, was one of the world’s loudest proponents of co-operation with Peking is now at the forefront in condemning China for its role in the brutalizing and oppression of the people of Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
With the Chinese authorities taking a more assertive approach to both domestic and international affairs, the free world has started to wake up to the real and growing threats that China poses to its values and way of life. Public sentiment in countries such as the US and Australia has shifted decidedly against Peking, and this has in turn influenced the attitudes and decision-making of the leaders of these countries towards China. Following an article in the Global Times, a CCP mouthpiece, threatening a missile strike on Australian soil, a collective call has emerged for the Australian government to expel the Chinese ambassador from the country. Peking’s “wolf-warrior diplomacy” has also perturbed many a western government in the past year: the British government, for instance, has proposed the introduction of a set of new laws to combat hostile state activity, including a US-style register of foreign agents and overhaul of the “archaic” Official Secrets Act; the laws would be used against individuals where there was “strong intelligence” to suggest involvement in hostile activity such as espionage, sabotage, and interference. Xi Jinping might think that his country is within sight, if not within grasp, of taking over the West which is decadent and doomed to decline; little does he know it might be more likely that he is digging his own grave trying.
(Joseph Long is a London-based writer and linguist from Hong Kong.)
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