The EU-China trade agreement is ‘unacceptable’ in its current form

2021-01-27

In its current form, the European Parliament will definitely not approve the trade deal the European Commission struck with China – said ATTILA ARA-KOVÁCS in an interview with Political Capital. The MEP representing Democratic Coalition (DK) believes that there are MEPs who unashamedly advance Russian interests against European ones, but only a few of them can potentially be the Kremlin’s agents. We discussed the Parliament’s role in foreign policy and the possibility of establishing a joint EU Army. The MEP did not hide the fact that he has more problems with his colleagues from the German SPD than with representatives from the CDU/CSU.

Ever since we have been following EU foreign policy closely, we have observed a key trend: the European Parliament (EP) declares much more ambitious foreign policy goals than what is mirrored in the decisions of the European Commission and the Council. For instance, one of the Parliament’s resolutions in 2020 called for sanctions on Chinese officials who played a role in the crackdown in Hong Kong, and yet, weeks later, the European Commission struck a political agreement with China on a trade treaty. Why is there such a gap between the foreign policy vision of the Parliament and the decisions of the Commission and the Council?

The Parliament is an institution that works as a parliament should. Many of its members brought with themselves the culture that is required for someone to be a parliamentary representative. In the Commission’s case, this does not always hold true, simply because they do not necessarily appoint the best commissioners, but those who are nominated by member states. We have seen very untalented commissioners who did not always have a firm grasp on the issues they had to deal with. The weakest body in this regard is the Council, which has mostly been created to work as a Senate. It is the body where national interests come into play the most frequently.

How could we bridge the gap and make the Union’s foreign policy more effective?

Numerous developments have already taken place in EU foreign policy due to changes to the international environment. For instance, the 2016 presidential election’s consequences weighed heavily on transatlantic relations, and the Commission and the EP got extended room for maneuver to balance this. Brexit has also changed the situation, as we had a lot of problems with the British before, among others, in the field of security policy, but these limitations are gone. Third, I must mention the radicalization of Russia and China. In this new geopolitical situation, they are also looking for their own paths, and trying to pressure Europe in the process. Europe has learned and will not revert to where it used to be. Naturally, Angela Merkel’s exit this year makes the situation more ambiguous, but it is impossible to return to the starting point. Neither Javier Solana, nor Federica Mongherini was able to achieve as much as Josep Borrell has as a High Representative. This year’s Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) report says that the Parliament – and the EU through it – wants to achieve strategic sovereignty, meaning that the Union sees itself as a great power and negotiates with its partners as such.

Is it possible that the unanimous voting requirement will be removed in the field of foreign policy in the future?

This is impossible to predict. However, it is clear that the Parliament has become such important in recent times that it is impossible to be circumnavigated.

Recently, the EP has had some success stories. Reacting to the events in Belarus, the Council did not put President Alexander Lukashenko on the EU sanctions list, which the EP sharply objected to. Then, the president did make his way onto the list. We must also mention the human rights sanction mechanism. What sort of tools MEPs have at their disposal to push for their policy priorities even in the field of foreign policy in the Union’s institutional system?

The EP’s Committee on Foreign Affairs (AFET) is not too large, albeit it is supplemented by the Security and Defense Committee (SEDE). These two are rather influential even despite their moderate size, as they include the most integrative, educated members, many of whom have been high-ranking officials in the national context (ministers of foreign affairs or defense, for example). They have a significant network of contacts internationally, which they can lean on. Additionally, we are living in an era where geopolitical fragmentation or conflicts have shaken the world: I do not only mean the pandemic, there is Trump’s election victory, Brexit, Russia’s isolation, or problems related to China. These all made the issues discussed in these committees acute ones. The migration crisis, events in Turkey, Syria have all made the AFET and SEDE more important, we are dealing with such questions every day. I am member of the Committee on Agriculture (AGRI) as well, which decides on a lot of money, but the questions of biomass or the farm to fork strategy are not that spectacular and do not influence global events. In the current situation, foreign policy, defense policy and alliances are crucial.

Could the Parliament’s lobbying power increase in the future?

The human resources for it are there, and the EP’s apparatus is working very well. Trump’s 2020 election loss creates a new situation, as the Parliament will be the one starting negotiations with the US, after which the Commission can strike the deals. DK has one priority, albeit with numerous sub-priorities, and that is the formation of the United States of Europe. Not necessarily tomorrow, but sometime in the future.

We have already mentioned the European Commission’s political deal with China. This is supposed to ensure that European companies receive fairer market access in China. Views on this deal vary greatly, Guy Verhofstadt strongly objected to it, for instance because of the deterioration of human rights in China in 2020. How much is this deal in Europe’s interest and Hungary’s interest? How likely it is that the EP ends up not ratifying the deal?

In its current form, the EP will not ratify it, it is not even on the agenda because there is considerable outrage. Nevertheless, we need to look at this realistically, but also by taking into account serious moral and geopolitical considerations. Economic cooperation with China is a necessity as long as they have something to offer. Just like natural gas and oil provided by Russia are needed. But this is only an important aspect if it serves the entirety of the European Union. Currently, the import and export of Chinese goods is primarily needed by Germany. It is clear that the Germans are starting to make decisions that only view German interests instead of European ones. This is what we have to address in the European Parliament, we must balance this somehow.

When talking about German interests, de you mean that the German ruling parties are too lenient on China or even Russia?

The problem lies mainly with the German left, not the CDU/CSU MEPs from the European People’s Party (EPP). When I was writing the CSDP report last year, I had to argue with my own left-wing colleagues, not those from the EPP. I had to convince the leftists to be able to criticize Russia, reveal what Russia is doing in terms of fake news or espionage. It is very important for DK to have a normal approach to China and Russia, evaluating both of them based on European, not German logic.

 

The EU-China trade deal was criticized by American actors as well. When, as you said, the Parliament starts to mend transatlantic relations, will this deal be a topic during the talks?

Certainly, but we are in a better position than we were on 3 November. Beforehand, there was a Trumpian China policy, which we could not have joined. We agreed with him, but it is different when someone crazy is running the show as opposed to a normal administration. Trump was unpredictable, changed his mind every day, his policies were not consistent. In contrast, there are people in the Biden administration who are closer to us. President Biden himself has connections to both Europe and Hungary. I do not mean to say that there were no good people in the Trump administration, Pompeo was not too bad himself. We need to find out what Biden wants to do with China exactly. It is certain that the bilateral relationship between them will be confrontative, but not exactly as it was during the Trump era.

 

Let’s move on to Russia. We have known for years that the Kremlin is trying to undermine European integration using disinformation and support for Eurosceptic parties. The Parliament has approved numerous resolutions on the topic and set up a special committee on foreign electoral interference. Despite these efforts and the relevant work of the EEAS, Moscow’s propaganda activities do not seem to falter. What should be done to allow the EU to protect itself from such influencing attempts?

I would not say that we are where we used to be. Russian interference into the 2016 US presidential elections was a stark warning to Europe. The importance of foreign interference was highlighted by the dealings of the European far right – such as Salvini, Strache or Viktor Orbán – with Russia as well. Europe reacted to these signs, for instance, on the level of secret services.

 

Since we are talking about Russia, we must mention the energy sector. The construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline will finish soon and Hungary would join the TurkStream. How much would these help Gazprom’s negotiating position vis-á-vis EU member states? Would EU institutions have had the tools at their disposal to stop Russia’s expansion in the sector?

The whole issue can basically be attributed to Angela Merkel and Germany. They say, and there is some truth to it, that Russia is as dependent on Europe as Europe is dependent on it. If we closed the taps and brought expensive oil to the continent, Russians would starve. Moscow is starting to realize this. If we look at Russia’s policies, Putin’s aggressive international actions of the past 10 years were directed inwards. It is another question that they are in the process of signing a quiet peace treaty with Germany with Nord Stream 2. There are other tools to stop Russia’s expanding influence, but whether they “give us natural gas or not” cannot be considered influence because if they do not, then they starve.

 

Let’s say a few words about how Russian, Chinese influence materializes in the European institutional system. How often do Russian and Chinese actors contact MEPs, EU officials to lobby for their own interests? Or, rather, is more common that MEPs, especially on the far left and far right, repeat Russian propaganda claims even in the European Parliament as so-called “useful idiots”?

There are people with Russian connections, but it was evident in the case of UKIP. Farage’s party was encouraged partly or fully by the Russians, that is almost certain. However, for instance, there is an MEP in Renew, who was the Moscow correspondent of a news outlet for 20 years – which would not be a problem, he should know what Russian reality looks like – who is always irked when we are trying to protect European interests against Russian ones. My colleagues in Renew complained about this. In fact, there is someone in almost all the parliamentary groups who pays close attention to Russia. In our S&D Group, the Germans really do not like when we criticize Putin and Russia. This does not mean they are Russian agents, they simply believe that Moscow is a lesser challenge for them than their own army. They view the leadership and officers of the army as extremely right-wing and believe that criticizing Russia instead of supporting a policy of peaceful co-existence would only lead to more resources for the army at home, pushing the balance within the organization even more to the right. There are MEPs who go against European interests and supporting Russian ones without a second thought, but I could count those who are potential agents on one hand.

 

I would like to ask specifically about your Bulgarian socialist colleagues. Our study found that they are the most pro-Russian mainstream force in the EP. Are there conflicts within S&D because of this? While we can see that Fidesz MEPs vote mostly in line with the EPP on foreign policy-related issues, Bulgarian socialists are not doing this.

This is the intellectual difference between Bulgarian socialists and Fidesz. This Janus-faced policy that Prime Minsiter Viktor Orbán is playing, and he thinks he can continue doing so, will not work, even if the EPP turned a blind eye to it for a long time. In any case: there is a large problem with the Bulgarians. We see that, but their views practically never gain hold. I have not yet met a Bulgarian socialist in a parliamentary committee, which shows that they make minimal efforts. They take their salary, vote as Moscow wants, and that is essentially it.

 

Finally, we should discuss the Union’s defense capacities, which is currently close to zero. Is it even needed? If there was an EU Army, how could it be managed, considering that it could only be created with the unanimous agreement of member states?

This is a very complex question; we have not been able to figure out an answer yet either. My boss in SEDE is a former Estonian minister of defense and foreign affairs. This question is a constant topic of debate between us. He says that if we created a joint army, we would create as many problems as we solve. And he is right, but building the future entails solving problems that come up along the way. My view is, and I always vote in this direction, that one of the important prerequisites for the establishment of the United States of Europe is a joint army. This raises thousands of questions; what about the language, for example. In the Parliament, not everyone speaks English, German or French, but we have interpreters. This would not work in an army. Another issue relates to arm exports. There was a huge debate, maybe during the autumn about the issue. The peace-lovers say that we cannot export arms anywhere. Me and my Hungarian colleagues say that if we do not allow weapons to be exported just to protect world peace, Russia, China or some other nation-state will fill the gap, which would hinder joint arms manufacturing. I said regarding this that if everyone made planes for themselves, Europe would not go anywhere, while Airbus – even if it costs a lot – is a joint undertaking strengthening the idea of working together. European positions must be improved in arms manufacturing and exports, and it will help the creation of an EU army.     

 

Patrik Szicherle 

 

About the project

Supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, Political Capital and its partners from Austria, Bulgaria, Czechia, Poland, Slovakia and Romania are researching value-based attitudes to foreign policy and authoritarian influence in the European Union’s institutions.

The thematic website of the project is available here.

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