EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy

  • Confidence in the EU has gradually diminished after a series of crises of values.
  • This has enabled the rapid growth of the populist and the far-right parties in the V4 countries, which are causing fragmentation within the EU due to what they perceive as unresolved asylum and migration issues.

In 2004, Romano Prodi commented on the EU enlargement by saying, “The divisions of the Cold War are gone-once and for all.” In hindsight, it was not just Fukuyama wrongfully pronouncing “the end of history.”

The internal fragmentation caused by crisis, austerity measures in the wake of the financial crisis and contested values has led to certain Member States looking elsewhere than the established western order. So far, China’s foreign direct investment (FDI) is playing crucial role in many Member States such as Hungary and Greece.

The crux here is that China not only plays a role as an economic booster for certain Member States but uses its economic allure to obtain diplomatic concessions.

The influence has begun manifesting itself in above mentioned EU countries’ stances towards China’s vis-à-vis EU’s position. For instance, in March 2017, Hungary, which receives enormous Chinese investment (see figure 1 below), was the only Member State refusing itself to be added in the joint letter expressing concerns of lawyers being tortured in detention in China. In figure 1, we can see that Hungary receives much more Chinese investment than other CEE countries. Aside from the economic concern, Hungary’s worrying human rights conditions which seriously violates EU’s core values makes it in the “strange bed fellow” relationship with the EU.

 

 

 

figure1,the inflow of Chinese’ FDI in USD millions of dollars in CEE countries from 2003 to 2015, from Agnes Szunomer’s research on Hungarian and Chinese economic relations published in 2017

Greece is another country that receives high levels of Chinese investment. The policy of issuing golden visas is an important channel to attract foreign direct investments. Applicants acquiring real estates that worth more than 250k euros are eligible to apply for a permanent resident permit. The rather cheap price of real estates and low application criteria attract Chinese investors, and so far, more than 1/3 of all golden visas are issued to Chinese applicants (see the graph collected in June, 2018 below). In 2017, Greece was the only member blocking the EU statement at the UN criticizing China’s human rights record. At the time Greece called it an “unconstructive criticism of China” and thus led to the EU’s first failure of not being able to make its statement at United Nation’s Human Rights Council.

figure 2, from citizenshipbyinvestment.ch

 

People might think that it is China’s economic lure that disunites and complicates the EU’s position on the human rights issue. However, it should be noted that China is ‘merely’ exploiting existing fault lines within the EU. Hungary has been long driven itself apart from the EU values with its far-right attitude towards migration and refugees following the 2015 refugee crisis, as well as its advocacy of the oxymoronic “illiberal democracy.”

Ultimately, does China derive tangible benefits from a weakening of European unity? Economically, the disunity of the EU makes China be able to perform different strategies through bilateral agreements with Member States. For instance, although the EU has shown its concern and mistrust through Belt and Road Initiative, the increasing Chinese investment in Greece’s transport sector indicates the open reception from the Greek government for China to construct a cross-border transport corridor from the Mediterranean to Central Europe. From a human rights aspect, the weakening commitment towards human rights within the EU prevents a credible, strong response towards China’s human rights violations. This, in turn, prompts a vicious cycle in which populist strongmen, using vapid and vague allusions to ‘national sovereignty’, undermine the value-based framework upon which not only the EU but the entire post-WWII world order is based, thus indirectly legitimizing China’s flagrant human rights violations.

In sum, the disunity generally strengthens the China’s ability to project power and promulgate its worldview, which weakens the resistance towards human rights violations and the economic barriers that could otherwise complicate China’s economic influence on the EU, i.e. the Belt and Road Initiative.

 

If China continuously targets economically weak or problematic Member States, it might cause the “spiral of silence” for these Member States to veto or remain silent towards China’s human rights violations, thus decreasing the EU’s soft power by weakening its commitment to important values regarding human rights issues and its own legitimacy, further leading to a disintegration of core European values.

Shang-Yen Lee

 

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