Henry Kissinger complained of not knowing who to call in Europe in times of crisis. Xi Jinping might have the opposite problem. Judging by the number of visits by European officials in recent weeks, Beijing will have to make multiple phone calls to understand the EU’s position in the event of an emergency.
In two weeks, China hosted the leaders of Spain and France, the President of the European Commission and the Foreign Minister of Germany (a fifth visit, by EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, was canceled at the last minute).
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The different, even contradictory visions of EU-China relations expressed during these visits were seen by most observers as a further setback in public image and a confirmation that the EU is far from being a “strategic” international actor. “.
While not completely unwarranted, these analyzes largely misunderstand the nature of the challenge that emerging US-China competition poses to the EU.
Faced with a seemingly impossible choice between security, values and economic interests, as is currently the case for the EU, using diverse messages to engage different audiences is a rational tactic for any actor wishing to avoid being cornered by enemies and taken for granted by partners.
Consider the different messages that the EU conveyed to China (and, indirectly, to the United States) in Beijing. Chinese leaders were treated to the full gamut of European opinion: from encouraging words about their peace plan for Ukraine from Pedro Sanchez to Ursula von der Leyen urging China to respect the international order, and from weariness of American “messianism” from French President Emmanuel Macron to German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock calling for respect for Taiwan’s integrity.
Some like to see this as emblematic of the EU’s notorious foreign policy incoherence.
Still, it’s unclear why these goals — hoping for peace in Ukraine while supporting Kiev, opposing changing Taiwan’s status, and urging China to abide by international rules while keeping communication with Beijing open — should be considered. as incompatible with each other.
Perhaps they seem so to those who adopt a polarizing Cold War logic in international affairs. If the United States and China have decided to see the world in these terms, nothing says that the EU should do the same.
A polycentric and (literally) multilingual foreign policy is therefore the right political tool for a power that will not allow its interests to be defined by the geopolitical competition of others.
The EU is, after all, far from the only actor in global politics to navigate between cross-cutting political and economic interests and values. Even the staunchly Atlanticist UK has tried, under Rishi Sunak, to dampen the vibrant anti-China rhetoric of the Boris Johnson and Liz Truss years in the hope of keeping channels of economic exchange open.
At the same time, the projection of a diverse set of values and preferences internationally reflects the diversity of opinions among the 27 member states with different strategic and economic priorities.
Judging the EU by the standards of nation states like the US and China misunderstands the nature of European foreign policy and underestimates its ability to make the most of nuance in a world of black-and-white polarization . It is true that the internal heterogeneity of voices in matters of foreign policy can often lead to indecision. But it is also a rich toolbox of discourses and arguments from which the EU can choose when engaging various actors in different circumstances.
In sum, the ability to use different foreign policy discourses is the EU’s greatest asset. It keeps a systemic rival like China on its toes, while signaling to a partner like the United States that Europe has its own distinct interests to defend. Contrary to popular belief, the EU’s diverse foreign policy message is a sign of a union that makes its own choices, rather than letting others impose their choices on it.