With so many fires to fight, the EU has forgotten its mission

Vice-Premier Ma Kai said China is taking the lead in solving the global problem of steel overcapacity. He spoke at a press conference with the Vice-President of European Commission Jyrki Katainen on October 18, in Brussels. (Fu Jing / China Daily)

The past week was extremely hectic in Brussels, with the city hosting the European summit, the sixth high-level economic and trade dialogue between Beijing and the EU, several discussions on how China and Europe can cooperate on mega projects, and in between, a host of China-related cultural events.

Protectionism has dominated the minds of those in EU institutions, no matter whether they are involved in trade talks with visiting Chinese Vice-Premier Ma Kai, or whether they are dealing with the UK’s exit from the bloc.

For years, the EU has been the global champion of free trade, multilaterism and advocating global solutions. But it is now challenged by multiple existential crisis, EU policymakers have been trying to put out one fire to another, and thus they have started to look inward and are failing to give enough attention to the future.

Even those that are taking notice of the EU’s long-term blueprint are doing so with alarm.

Data suggests that, by the middle of this century, the EU’s aging population mean it will comprise around only 5 percent of the world’s total. And the fact that its population is shrinking means its market is shrinking too.

To negate this demographic transformation, today’s EU leaders, if they want stronger and more sustainable European integration, should not seek protectionism or isolation.

On the positive side, most of the discussions at China-related meetings and talks away from trade negotiations have been more encouraging.

When deputy Belgian Prime Minister Kris Peeters met Ma on Tuesday, he pledged that Belgium would abide by World Trade Organization agreement protocols. Also last week, Peeters said Belgium expects to become a member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank next year and is determined to “gain” from the Belt and Road Initiative.

Such attitudes have already been expressed by other EU member states, including the UK, the Czech Republic, Greece and Hungary. Sadly, the EU as a whole, on many occasions, has not been capable of this.

The EU should remember that all of the countries in Western Europe, other than Belgium, have already become founding members of the AIIB.

Such strong engagement should be further facilitated, instead of being blocked, when the EU deals with China through policy debates and exchanges.

In addition to several seminars on the Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road held in Brussels last week, e-commerce and digital cooperation were also discussed.

Duncan Clark, the author of Alibaba: The House that Jack Ma Built, has raised the question: When will Europe have its own Jack Ma? The British writer talks about Ma’s massive scale of financing and nurturing small-and medium-sized enterprises.

Clark’s question sheds light on the EU’s inward protectionism and its tight regulatory framework, despite the fact that the bloc is supposed to be advocating a single digital market comprising 500 million consumers.

The EU should remember that mutual cooperation is the only way ahead.

Chinese culture has taught many people, especially diplomats, the importance of being reserved. But last Friday, when Qu Xing, a professor-turned-ambassador in Belgium, was delivering a key note speech at a forum on the Belt and Road Initiative, he straightforwardly pointed out that China doesn’t aim to be praised for raising its issues, but instead wants them to be a mutually-benefiting public good.

In a nutshell, that is the dominating philosophy when China is engaging with the world: it wants win-win situations, instead of winners and losers.

It is the right time for the EU leaders to think about issues from the other side’s perspective if they really want to protect the interests of the EU.

The author is deputy chief of China Daily European Bureau.

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