China-EU summit: Beijing and Brussels resume talks in a difficult global context

A China-Europe summit is taking place on Thursday 7 December in Beijing. It had been four years since there had been a face-to-face meeting between Chinese and European leaders. Relations between Beijing and Brussels are currently tense, to say the least, and no joint statement is expected at the summit.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (illustration photo) on Thursday (7 December) called for addressing "imbalances and differences" between the European Union and China, on the occasion of their first face-to-face summit in more than four years. AP - Olivier Matthys

By: Stéphane Lagarde Follow


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For the past four years, water has flowed under the Sino-European bridge. Covid-19, war in Ukraine, abysmal trade deficit... in Beijing as well as in Brussels, diplomats have adopted a realism of circumstance. No one is talking about a "joint declaration" anymore as it was at the "Smile Summit" in 2019 – it wasn't even proposed. This time, it is above all a question of avoiding the "dialogue of the deaf" of the virtual summit with the "grimace" of last April and of rebuilding trust. Europe wants to make its voice heard on existential issues such as Russia's war of aggression in Ukraine, which until now Moscow's ally China has not wanted to hear about. So much so that Europeans' speeches on the subject were sometimes censored during the "simultaneous translation" of events organized by China. A day of negotiations is already short! On the European side, during the working lunch between Charles Michel, Ursula Von Der Leyen and Xi Jinping this lunchtime, and then later at the end of the day during the dinner with the Chinese Prime Minister, Li Qiang, the talks refocused on geopolitical issues in addition to bilateral trade tensions.

Charm Offensive

That of foreign investors in general, given the difficulties faced by the world's second-largest economy. But for Europe, there was first the acceptance of a whole series of dialogues, following the visit of the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, at the beginning of the year. Dialogue on human rights, the environment, digital technology, trade, and strategic dialogue as well. A total of eight European Commissioners have travelled to Beijing this year, with some concrete results, including the Chinese government's desire to better protect foreign companies. And then there were the gestures made by Beijing in recent weeks: the lifting of short-stay visas for countries like Germany, Spain, France, Italy, the Netherlands - well obviously the member countries that are not part of the short list are not happy. China has also lifted its sanctions against Lithuania. And in Brussels, according to the South China Morning Post, there was talk of "constructive preparations". We are now waiting for the press briefings of the two parties at the end of the day, to know what the concrete outcome of these new negotiations will have been.

Electric vehicles and derisking

The main objective of the Chinese at this summit is to try to defuse the anger and awakening of the Europeans on certain issues. The duo of Charles Michel and Ursula Von der Leyen is a bit like a "good cop, bad cop". There is also, of course, Josep Borrell, the Vice-President of the European Commission, who is also here. The Europeans are all playing the same game with Beijing, but the announcement of the opening of an EU anti-subsidy investigation into imports of electric vehicles from China was felt like a thunderclap here. More than 200 billion yuan (€26 billion) was spent on subsidies and tax breaks for electric vehicle production in China between 2009 and 2022. Support also for battery manufacturers in 2015. The Europeans don't want us to do it again. They point out that the notion of "derisking" formulated by Von der Leyen and taken up by the G7 and the Americans is very similar to the "self-sufficiency strategy" launched by Beijing with quotas for local production in key sectors. On the Chinese side, there was initially a thunder against an act described as "purely protectionist" which, according to Beijing, risked destabilizing supply chains and going against the common fight against global warming. And then, according to the experts we called here, Beijing, as was the case with batteries, could try to improve relations with Brussels by encouraging Chinese electric car manufacturers to open factories in Europe in exchange for an exemption from customs duties.

Read also:EU to ask China to sanction companies that circumvent embargo against Russia

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