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Europe's Balancing Act
The EU is not prepared to sacrifice its relationship with China to align policies with U.S. recommendations
By George N. Tzogopoulos  ·  2020-02-28  ·   Source: NO.10 MARCH 5, 2020
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and President of the European Council Charles Michel attend a press conference in Brussels, Belgium, on February 21 (XINHUA)

When Donald Trump was elected president of the U.S., the general sentiment in Europe was negative. Trump's new path of unilateralism, his support for Brexit and his indifference to the European integration project raised concerns about the future of transatlantic relations. The concerns were vindicated.

Since the beginning of 2017, relations between the U.S. and the EU have entered a period of tension. Disagreements on the Paris climate change accord, the Iran nuclear program and the trade war brought the two almost at odds. While Brussels had closely collaborated with Washington during the years of the Barack Obama administration, it finds itself in an awkward position to defend basic norms such as globalization, multilateralism and free trade in the Trump era.

A golden opportunity

Despite disagreements in transatlantic relations, the Trump presidency has provided a golden opportunity for the EU to start a serious debate about some steps it needed to take alone, independently of the U.S. For many decades, the American umbrella had been conveniently used to either explain inaction or justify failures, primarily in the field of security.

Lack of progress in the area of a common EU foreign and defense policy could be attributed to the continuous American commitment to safeguard European security. On the other hand, there was a tendency to criticize the U.S. alone for miscalculations in military expeditions—in which some EU member states took part—such as the 2003 war on Iraq. Against this backdrop, the Trump presidency has acted as a springboard for the EU to make difficult decisions. The Permanent Structured Cooperation, the EU security and defense policy, for example, does not resemble a European army but exhibits Europe's determination to proceed.

In the Trump years, the EU seems determined to undertake additional responsibilities and chart its own course in international affairs. A remarkable recent case demonstrating its will to support its interests without necessarily accepting the American cause is the publication of the toolbox for 5G security. In particular, a relevant document of the Network Information Society presents cybersecurity risks and mitigation measures but does not stipulate a preemptive exclusion of any company.

Although Huawei is not named, it is evident that the European policy differs from the American one. While the latter has blocked the Chinese company and has systematically attempted to persuade its partners to follow the same path, the former appears careful and hesitant in endorsing this approach. This is an indication that the EU no longer fears the potential repercussions from the U.S. A recent New York Times article titled Europe Resists U.S. Efforts to Ban Huawei asserts that America's global campaign has largely failed.

In the coming months, EU member states need to implement the guidelines mentioned, and subsequently make decisions on their 5G network. In doing so, they are able to keep Huawei as a potential option. This policy allows European countries to continue relying on a diverse pool of network suppliers. The European Telecommunications Network Operators' Association welcomed the publication of the toolbox and urged national governments to "avoid disproportionate actions that negatively impact the investment climate and which could in turn harm both Europe's competitiveness and its strategic position in 5G development."

This last phrase connotes that the U.S. might perhaps intensify efforts to prevent EU member states from signing agreements with Huawei and join the Five Eyes group, an alliance of the U.S., the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, in spite of the failure of the first phase of the campaign. Of course, the question that is raised and cannot be successfully answered is which other companies can compete with the high quality and low prices of Huawei.

Visitors at Chinese tech giant Huawei's pavilion at an Internet of Things conference in Berlin, Germany, on February 19 (XINHUA)

Political maturity

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, who have the influence to set the tone in Europe, believe the cybersecurity problem cannot be solved by ostracizing a specific company. Merkel, in particular, defied the pressure by some members of parliament of her Christian Democratic Union and some officials, and highlighted the significance of Sino-German relations for the national economy and exports. She possesses the gift of addressing delicate subjects and finding balanced solutions. It is reflected in her management of the European debt crisis and refugee crisis.

For his part, Macron has a vision of a bright future for the EU and is not prepared to constantly play the American card. Last November, he was explicit during a joint news briefing with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. He said that he would never look to stigmatize any particular telecom operator or any particular country.

In addition to Merkel and Macron, the stance of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in preventing the exclusion of Huawei is telling. The UK left the EU at the end of January but had played a role in the preparation of the European toolbox.

All in all, three key conclusions can be drawn from the EU decision that enables Huawei to continue participating in Europe's 5G rollout. First, the Trump presidency has produced a result the U.S. had perhaps not anticipated: It pushed the EU to reach political maturity and make difficult decisions alone. While this can be in the interest of Washington in some sectors such as strengthening European defense, it cannot be in others such as 5G.

Second, the EU is not prepared to sacrifice its relationship with China in order to necessarily align its policies with U.S. recommendations, but prefers to act with dexterity and achieve a balancing act. It is exploring closer ties with the Chinese Government in some policy areas including environmental protection.

Third, joint Sino-European research programs and technological partnerships with the participation of Huawei clearly remain in the interest of Brussels. A stronger industrial strategy to promote better competitiveness can thus be forged in Europe. Whether this good climate of mutual understanding will also be present in the negotiation rounds aimed at concluding the China-EU Comprehensive Agreement on Investment in 2020 remains to be seen.

The author is director of the EU-China Program at the Centre International de Formation Européenne

Copyedited by Madhusudan Chaubey

Comments to yanwei@bjreview.com

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