Thursday, February 16, 2012

EU-China summit: Advance on Market Economy Status, retreat on Economic Partnership

At the EU-China summit in Tianjin, José Manuel Barroso, Herman van Rompuy and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao agreed
that a rich in substance EU-China investment agreement would promote and facilitate investment in both directions. Negotiations towards this agreement would include all issues of interest to either side, without prejudice to the final outcome. [Both sides] agreed to work towards the start of the negotiation as soon as possible.
One the one hand, this is an interesting development. In the past, bilateral investment agreements have allowed European enterprises additional security in their overseas investments, given that they could directly seek arbitration with an international tribunal.

One the other hand, opening new investment negotiations suggests that the 2007 Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) talks are all but dead. At the time, the EU wanted to update the 1985 agreement that governs Sino-European economic relations, and adapt the partnership to the changed trade patterns of the 21st century (increased trade in services, increased volume of foreign direct investment, questions of intellectual property, China's entry into the WTO in 2001 etc.). The 2010 EU-China summit still referred to the PCA, but this year it was not mentioned a single time. Are economic relations between the EU and China running smoothly if a comprehensive economic agreement is silently scrapped and replaced with the promise of a potential investment agreement? I don't think so. 

Another import point at the summit was Market Economy Status (MES) for China. Despite China's WTO membership since 2001 (analysis: here), the EU has long withheld MES for China and used it as a bargaining chip. Now, it appears that Van Rompuy and Barroso are ready to scrap their opposition if China steps up its help in the Eurozone crisis in return. Granting MES to China would inter alia strengthen Chinese enterprises in anti-dumping cases. The ALDE group is particularly unhappy to see the EU's bargaining chip vanish, but it would soon disappear anyway, given that under China's WTO accession agreement, the EU agreed to grant MES automatically in 2016 (even though this is contested).

Overall, I do not have the impression that this summit was a great advance in EU-China relations. But then, good relations across different cultures are not created overnight. Instead, many small initiatives such as dialogues in climate change, energy, urbanization etc. continue to bring the two partners closer together. In the long run, I would hope that the EU and China, two of the biggest trading blocks in the world, can use the summits to give their voice to global trade and global sustainable development. But in the short run, I believe that bilateral cooperation will continue to take place on the micro-level.

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