On February 16, at the Munich Security Conference, Josep Borrell explained very clearly the great problem of the European Union: “If we are not capable of making decisions that stop other powers, we will not have power. We will have influence, but no power,” he said. And that lack of power has been highlighted these days when the Union’s diplomatic arm, led by Borrell himself, has decaffeinated a critical report with China for fear of unleashing the wrath of Beijing.
Last Tuesday, Politico announced that the European External Action Service (EEAS) was going to publish a report that same day warning of China’s growing role in disinformation campaigns on the European continent. However, the EEAS did not publish anything until Friday. In its final version, moreover, it hardly spoke of China. What had happened? Beijing had reacted quickly and, as soon as it knew its contents, had pressured various European officials to freeze the report, warning of a possible deterioration in relations between Brussels and Beijing if the text came to light.
“The Chinese are threatening us to react if we publish the report,” European diplomat Lutz Güllner wrote to his colleagues last Tuesday, according to the “New York Times.” From the portal Axios reported Monday that, in conversations with its European counterparts, Chinese officials repeatedly cited the worsening relationship between China and the US as an example of what would happen to the EU if it criticized China’s response to the coronavirus. These attempts at coercion by Beijing are not an isolated element, but confirm more aggressive and assertive diplomacy that has been accentuated in recent months and known as “Wolf Warrior diplomacy“.
In the initial document there was hardly any exclusive or striking information, but mere notes on the performance of Beijing during the pandemic that had already appeared in the international press. The authors claimed that China was conducting a “global disinformation” campaign to deflect blame for the outbreak of the pandemic and “improve its international image”. Meanwhile, in the internal report that has circulated among diplomatic circles and to which Revyuh has had access, there are notes on China’s actions as a relevant actor of disinformation. However, in the text published a few days later, Beijing is hardly mentioned.
The European Commission has denied any backtracking on the document, assuring that the differences between the first documents that were leaked to the press and the one published last Friday are not due to anything being clipped, but because one was the internal document. “Who is benefiting from this when we have a great enemy to fight with, which is disinformation?” Said Peter Stano, Foreign Spokesman for the European Commission, who has asked to read the report “with open eyes.” “We have nothing to hide, what we are publishing are facts.”
An EEAS analyst went on to claim that European diplomats were “self-censoring to appease the Chinese Communist Party”
However, according to sources close to the controversy consulted by Revyuh, this statement by the Commission spokesperson does not correspond to reality, since neither the internal nor the initial document resembled the one published on Friday. In other words, the EEAS lightened the tone after pressure from Beijing, which has sowed discord even within the European diplomatic arm itself.
On the one hand, senior EEAS officials, closer to Borrell, reportedly stopped the report in fear of a response from Beijing, while lower-level officials warned of the precedent that such an action could set, as the same sources assert. In fact, according to the New York Times, an EEAS analyst went so far as to say that European diplomats were “self-censoring to appease the Chinese Communist Party.”
Parliament asks for explanations
Meanwhile, the European Parliament has already charged the Commission. “Our political sovereignty is at stake if we allow Chinese coercion to take place at the heart of our European democracy,” a number of MEPs led by liberal Dutchman Bart Groothuis have written. The letter calls on Borrell “to a formal and complete explanation to the European Parliament as soon as possible.”
European capitals sway in a world divided between China and the United States. There are different currents of thought. Many believe that the EU should keep its balance, be close to Washington on most issues, but remain open to Beijing due to trade needs. Other countries, traditionally very attached to the White House in terms of security, bet on opting for the American side in any clash between the US and China.
The same is true in Brussels. He is suspicious of the Chinese government, but at the same time, he is considered a key and increasingly important interlocutor in a world in which the United States is increasingly withdrawing. When Donald Trump decided to block the arbitration system of the World Trade Organization (WTO), the EU was immediately forced to turn to Beijing. Necessity and suspicion are mixed in Europe’s relationship with the Asian giant.
The scandal is not limited to Brussels. In Berlin, the government is accused of being soft with the efforts of Beijing and criticism is minimal in the rest of the capitals. In this sense, the EEAS is a very little independent arm of the EU: each step it takes is closely watched by the Member States, which retain jurisdiction over their external relations.
In this sense, Borrell’s department is a rare bird: an attempt is being made to coordinate at a European level a policy in which there are profound differences between countries. The EEAS has its hands tied in foreign policy and its only job is to reduce those differences. This is why no one can expect that, amid the silence of European governments, the EEAS will launch a very aggressive document with China. However, what this type of controversy does reveal is that the “appetite for power” that Borrell claimed upon assuming office still seems, for the time being, a pipe dream.