Remember, how the European Union had emerged as the weakling within the democratic world when Donald Trump, the former US President, started a global campaign against Chinese authoritarianism? Over the past one year or so, democratic powers like India, Australia, the United States and Japan have shown the will to challenge Chinese hegemony. However, the EU has been showing pro-China tendencies by giving precedent to its trading relations with China.
However, things are changing in Europe all of a sudden. The pro-China leaderships are either getting kicked out or are retiring. Meanwhile, anti-China leadership is either coming to power or getting emboldened in its efforts. Potentially, the new set of leadership in the European Continent can turn the EU into an anti-China bloc.
Czech Republic goes to elections
Czech Republic will go to elections this Friday and Saturday. The elections are crucial as they will determine who leads the country for the next four years, but their coverage has been overshadowed by the elections in Germany.
Anyhow, the political situation in Czech Republic is very interesting. The leadership in the country is pro-China. The country has been led by a coalition formed in the year 2017, and the ANO 2011 party is the senior partner in the coalition, whose leader Andrej Babis serves as the Czech Prime Minister.
Babis is one of Czech Republic’s richest men and a strong supporter of China. However, his pro-China image doesn’t augur well in the run up to the Czech elections, as anti-China sentiment is rising in the central European country as 57% Czechs hold adverse opinion of the authoritarian nation. In fact, Czech Republic holds the fourth-worst opinion of China in entire Europe.
Many Czechs blame Chinese investments for growing corruption in their country. Moreover, while Babis has emerged as a pro-China face, the Czech opposition has grabbed the opportunity to oppose Chinese influence. They are also demanding a return to the era of Vaclav Havel, the first Czech Republic President, who had advocated a values-based foreign policy opposing authoritarianism.
Prague Pirate Party mayor and Babis’ rival Zdenek Hrib, for instance, stoked anti-Beijing sentiment by scrapping Czech capital Prague’s “sister-city” relationship with China’s capital Beijing. Similarly, the Czech Senate President visited Taiwan in a show of solidarity last year.
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis will face an uphill task when he goes to polls on Friday and Saturday as anti-China opposition looks to corner him over his pro-China image.
Anti-China sentiment grows in Central and Eastern Europe
Europe is a single Continent divided into two cultures- Western Europe and Eastern/ Central Europe. The EU itself is seen as a Western Europe-dominated intergovernmental bloc. In 2004, the EU did manage to rope-in eight former Communist countries in Eastern Europe. But the fact remains that Western Europeans consider the countries that acceded to the EU in 2004 or even between 2007-2013 as “new” and not fully European.
Now, Western Europe may not be completely anti-China, but Eastern Europe has shown a lot of contempt and hatred for the communist nation. Take the tiny Baltic nation of Lithuania for instance. Lithuania hates everything related to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its illiberal traits.
Recently, Lithuania discovered that a Chinese mobile handset sold in the Baltic nation had an interesting feature- it contained a censorship registry of 449 words which have been banned by the CCP. Lithuania alleged that one Xiaomi phone had in-built censorship features whereas a Huawei model had security issues.
In fact, Lithuania’s Defence Ministry also advised consumers to throw away Chinese smartphones.
Lithuania may be a nation of less than 2.8 million people but it is standing up to the most populated country in the world without any fear. Earlier this year, the Baltic nation also announced its decision to quit the China-led “17+1” bloc with other Central and Eastern European nations. Lithuania also implored other countries to walk out of the pro-China forum.
Such sentiment in Eastern and Central Europe is slowly paving way for emergence of anti-China leadership in the region. This will put more pressure on Brussels to adopt anti-China policies.
Germany might get a China hawk as its leader
Meanwhile, in Western Europe, the most significant European player Germany has ended up with an unconclusive election. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was supposed to retire after the elections anyway. However, her conservative CDU won only 196 seats in the 735-seat Bundestag. On the other hand, the center-left Social Democratic Party bagged 206 seats.
Now, the most likely scenario is that both the Greens and the pro-business Free Democratic Party will back the SDP’s Olaf Scholz. Other scenarios include a continuance of the current CDU-SPD partnership with the chancellorship moving to the center-left party, or the CDU’s Armin Laschet receiving support from the Greens and the FDP.
Also read: Are China-Germany Ties likely to get sour?
Both the Greens and the FDP insist on incorporating universal human rights in any economic agreement between the EU and China. Greens’ chancellorship candidate Annalena Baerbock has, in fact, gone as far as calling for “a new chapter” in EU human rights policy toward China.
Germany is China’s most valued trade partner in the EU with a mutual trade of about $250 billion. However, the new leadership in Germany seems likely to invoke issues like Xinjiang, Taiwan and Hong Kong in its China policy.
Meanwhile, if Germany turns anti-China, other countries will follow suit as Berlin remains the biggest European power. More importantly, France, the only European country with permanent membership in the UN Security Council is also likely to turn anti-China.
Remember, French President Emmanuel Macron is already an anti-China leader. Moreover, he has some major ambitions including a desire to emerge as the tallest leader in the European Union. He seemed to have challenged Merkel’s de facto EU leadership earlier and now if Germany gets a China hawk, Macron will have to dump up his own anti-China campaign in order to impress upon the smaller European nations.
We can actually contemplate Berlin and Paris competing for leadership in checking Chinese hegemony, which would turn EU into a progressively anti-China power. The rise of new leadership in Europe is thus making it an anti-China power.