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Will Europe go wobbly on Ukraine?

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, right, welcomes European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, left, for a meeting as part of a two-day closed meeting of the German government at Meseberg palace in Gransee near Berlin, Germany, Sunday, March 5, 2023. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

French President Emmanuel Macron is taking Ursula von der Leyen with him on his trip to China next week. Von der Leyen is president of the European Commission and, until now, one of the European Union’s (EU) staunchest supporters of Ukraine. The two are scheduled to arrive in Beijing on April 4. While Macron’s visit had been announced some time ago, von der Leyen’s recent decision to join gives the trip a pan-European stamp of approval. But for what?

To Americans, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Moscow was further confirmation that Beijing sides with “Putin’s war machine,” as von der Leyen has called it. In Europe, views are divided. Specifically, there are growing concerns in east Europe about west Europe.

Macron, who once said he was worried about Putin being humiliated, is a red flag. Central and Eastern Europe (by and large) want de-risking and perhaps eventual de-coupling from China. They want nothing to do with Chinese-brokered peace deals for Ukraine.

But China is important to the European Union. In 2021, China surpassed the United States as the EU’s top trading partner. After the visit of China’s foreign minister to Paris in mid-February, a French government spokesperson said that France and China “have the same objective of contributing to peace” in Ukraine. This while Washington is doing everything it can to prevent China from delivering weapons to Russia. Beijing already helps Moscow with spare parts, dual-use equipment and economic aid.

The EU should join the United States in pushing China to stand squarely behind Ukraine. It’s encouraging that Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez (whose country will assume the EU presidency this summer) will take this line with Xi in Beijing this week. The EU must do more.

The EU has leverage over China. In 2022, Beijing exported over $560 billion-worth of goods to the Union, making the latter China’s largest single market importer. China sends hardware and telecommunications equipment to Europe and imports cars and machinery. China is also fond of ports and critical infrastructure. One of the main reasons China hasn’t followed up on its “no limit partnership” with Russia is the fear of how sanctions might affect its access to the European market. 

If it looks like Washington has been alone in ringing the alarm bells about China’s role in the Ukraine war, there may be multiple reasons. China and its lobby have been hard at work. The EU’s foreign service reported in 2019 that Chinese influencers and spies were roaming the streets of Brussels. The EU reassessed its relationship to China after Beijing cyber attacked European health care facilities amid the pandemic.

Why is China still a partner at all? In December 2020, months after the European Commission had called out China’s cyberattacks, Brussels announced it had reached a major investment deal with Beijing. The deal was the culmination of seven years of negotiations pushed through by Germany’s then-chancellor, Angela Merkel. It was disappointing that Chancellor Scholz – champion of German deterrence – traveled to Beijing late last fall with a plane stuffed full of German CEOs.

Perhaps Macron just wants a piece of the Chinese cake. Budapest and Athens are problems. But it’s Berlin and Paris that must steady themselves. Macron’s foreign policy realism is not realistic. China and Europe must unite themselves to end the war in Ukraine, he says. Really?

Central and Eastern European countries have warned for years about Russia’s revanchist ambitions. They’re also the skeptical ones about China. Lithuania is leading: It has allowed Taiwan to open a trade office in Vilnius, earning a place on China’s sanctions list as a result. Following the Lithuanian example, the other two Baltic nations have left the China-Eastern Europe 16+1 format. The pro-democracy contagion spreads. Last weekend, encouraged by new president Petr Pavel, a delegation of 150 Czech business leaders traveled to Taipei.

A united Europe would need a comprehensive China strategy. That’s essential for Europe’s security in the long-term. At present, it’s vital for Ukrainian victory. Don’t go wobbly, Frau von der Leyen. No peace games, Monsieur Macron.

Iulia Sabina-Joja teaches at Georgetown University and George Washington University, runs the Middle East Institute’s Black Sea program in Washington, D.C., and is co-host of the AEI podcast “Eastern Front.”

Tags China China-Russia relations China-US relations Emmanuel Macron EU European Commission European Union Germany Macron Olaf Scholz Pedro Sánchez Russia Russia-Ukraine war Ukraine Ukraine aid United States Ursula von der Leyen Ursula von der Leyen Xi Jinping

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