European Union: Changes at the top; China could be sideswiped

The Financial Times reports that “European leaders have agreed a deal to fill the Screen Shot 2019-07-03 at 07.31.36EU’s most important jobs, backing Christine Lagarde to lead the European Central Bank and Ursula von der Leyen to be president of the European CommissionOn the third day of a gruelling summit in Brussels, EU leaders gave near-unanimous support for a package based around Ms Lagarde, France’s former finance minister who is now head of the IMF, and Ms von der Leyen, Germany’s defence minister … [but] … the proposed deal remains unconfirmed because it is facing resistance from parts of the European Parliament, which must back Ms von der Leyen’s appointment … [and] … German chancellor Angela Merkel had to abstain on the deal because of resistance from some of her party’s coalition partners in Berlin … [still] … The breakthrough among leaders ends five weeks of wrangling to fill the most important policymaking roles in the EU, which are all falling vacant at the same time. The bloc has never had to fill all its key roles within such a short period … [and] …  The chosen team will steer the bloc through an age of upheaval, handling Brexit, the aftermath of the financial crisis, and trade policy with regard to US protectionism and Chinese economic power.

But local, European, domestic issues are not all that will concern whoever leads the EU. China looms, always, on the horizon inching ever closer to Europe.

The South China Morning Post says that “The newly announced nominee to lead the European Commission has previously sounded alarm bells about China’s impact on

Screen Shot 2019-07-03 at 07.32.04
Ursula von der Leyen, in her capacity as German defence minister, attends a military honours ceremony with Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe in Beijing last year. Photo: AFP

Europe, leaving Chinese diplomatic observers wondering whether China-EU relations face an uncertain next five years … [adding that] … Ursula von der Leyen became the surprise choice on Tuesday to replace Jean-Claude Juncker at the head of the EC – the EU’s executive – after three days of bitter wrangling by the European Council, comprising the leaders of the 28 European Union member countries … Von der Leyen, 60, is Germany’s defence minister and has served in various positions in Angela Merkel’s cabinet since Merkel became German chancellor in 2005 … [and] … The first woman nominated for the top job, Von der Leyen had the crucial backing of French President Emmanuel Macron, as well as the support of the Visegrad Four bloc of Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia … [but] … in Chinese diplomatic circles there was scepticism about her potential ascent, pointing to her interview with the German newspaper Die Zeit in January … [because] … In the interview, she said China “kindly ensnares” Europe, meaning that “we often overlook how consistently it pursues its goals – and how cleverly”.

The SCMP noted that “EU-China relations have been critical to Beijing’s strategic calculations in recent years as it counts on a relative level of goodwill from Brussels amid ongoing trade and geopolitical tensions with the United States … [and] … Some analysts say the departure of Juncker will have little impact on the overall EU-China dynamic, given that most EU policymaking requires consensus among the 28 member states … [but] … Chinese diplomats who talked to the South China Morning Post on condition of anonymity said personalities mattered, and rhetoric uttered by key politicians in Europe could have an impact on the way they were perceived by China … [saying that] … “Juncker has been very careful in treading a fine balance in criticising China’s economic policies without going too far on our politics and human rights” … [and] … Von der Leyen’s tenure will be judged in Beijing by whether the close trade links between the two economies continue to thrive. At present, China is the EU’s second-biggest trading partner, while the EU is China’s biggest.”

Neither Ms Von der Leyen nor Ms Legarde are without critics and Ms Von der Leyen, especially, will be controversial because she was not the Spitzenkandidat and, therefore, the choice of the Dutch, Finns, Germans and Swedes. It remains to be seen how their selection will impact Canada and Donald Trump’s America.

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