The view from Beijing tells you why we need a European foreign policy

The EU's national rivalries comprise a standing invitation for any major world power to divide and rule. In an article for The Guardian, Timothy Garton Ash argues that even if things go well, what Europeans may achieve in concentrating power resources will only just compensate for the relative loss of power to the re-emerging old-new giants in the east.

This article first appeared in The Guardian

If you want to understand why Europe needs a foreign policy, try to imagine how it looks from Zhongnanhai. I suspect China’s leaders sit around in that compound next to the Forbidden City, chortling into their tea about the undignified antics of the Europeans who once plundered and humiliated their country. For today the Europeans appear like mendicants before the imperial throne, begging for business to lift their faltering economies. David Cameron for Britain, Nicolas Sarkozy for France, José Sócrates for Portugal.

Each for his own.

And human rights? European values? A Nobel peace prizewinner unjustly imprisoned? Ah yes, they did mention them, didn’t they? Over dinner, that is, or in a private meeting. (The spin on this to the European leader’s national media invariably oversells the brief, muted, highly diplomatic comments that historians will sooner or later discover in the official records.) Or, as Cameron did yesterday, in a carefully balanced tightrope walk before students at Peking University. (Characteristically, his speech was heavily over-spun to the British media in advance.)

Always speaking politely, of course, for is not politesse also a European value? And so discreetly that the emperor can pretend not to notice. Mentioning human rights is just one of those uncouth habits Europeans have, like picking your nose in public. Perhaps, in time, as China grows in wealth and power, the foreign devils will become more civilised.

Altogether, the conduct of European leaders is a standing invitation for any major world power to divide and rule. Putin’s Russia needed no invitation. Obama’s America tries to resist the temptation, genuinely looking for the single European number it can call. China is ambivalent. It’s so messy and time-consuming for Beijing to deal separately with all these puffed-up, prickly little countries, and the Chinese economy benefits hugely from the existence of a single European market. But Europe’s standing invitation to Chinese splittism is hard to resist.

Thus, to take a small but richly symbolic example, China is currently trying to persuade everyone – including EU ambassadors – to boycott the Nobel peace prize ceremony for Liu Xiaobo in Oslo on December 10. When it comes to Tibet or Xinjiang, China insists on the importance of total respect for its sovereignty. Yet now it is telling Europeans they should not attend a European ceremony in Europe. So China’s sovereignty is absolute, other people’s sovereignty is negotiable. (The United States has a similar double standard.)

This should be an easy call for Europe. The EU’s 27 member states should simply announce that all their ambassadors to Norway will attend the ceremony. Basta. But in the runup to president Hu Jintao’s imperial visitation to Paris last week, I read that France’s foreign ministry “said it would announce before December 10 whether it intended to attend the Nobel prize-giving”. Europe splits again. More tittering into the teacups at Zhongnanhai.

In Brussels last week for the annual meeting of the European council on foreign relations, a think-and-advocacy tank (on whose board I serve) devoted to developing a European foreign policy, I caught up with some of those charged with pulling together the threads of the EU’s foreign policy. They observed with a mixture of irony and irritation that, in relation to China or Russia, EU member states almost invariably want the EU’s collective stance to be tougher than their own individual stances.

You can read the rest of this article at The Guardian

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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