At a press conference following their meeting with Xi Jinping in Beijing on Thursday, Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen showed their customary discomfort alongside one another. Each looked straight ahead while the other spoke and neither referred to or even acknowledged the other.
But for all the awkwardness, they delivered exactly the same message about the European Union’s relationship with China, the imbalance of trade, the necessity of “de-risking” and the need for Beijing to get into line with the western powers on Ukraine. It was the same song they have been singing for months, apparently oblivious to the fact that the background music has changed.
Brussels has a good case on the trade imbalance, which has seen the EU’s trade deficit with China balloon to €400 billion as European companies struggle to gain equal access to the Chinese market. Beijing’s claims that the figures are distorted by the fact that European companies operating in China sell much of what they produce back to Europe don’t get close to explaining the widening imbalance.
Von der Leyen and Michel restated the EU’s position that “de-risking” is not decoupling and is not directed at China but is simply about making the EU more resilient. And von der Leyen said China’s policy of “self-reliance” is similar to de-risking.
China is sceptical about the EU’s claims about de-risking, not least because it comes as Brussels launches a probe into Beijing’s subsidies for its electric vehicle producers. The Chinese side told the Europeans on Thursday that the country’s success in electric vehicles is down to innovation and the increasing competitiveness of its producers rather than subsidies.
They also pointed out that China is not the only country to use subsidies as a tool of industrial policy and that the EU has relaxed its own state aid rules to allow battery producers to receive €6 billion in subsidies.
Where the background music has changed most this year is on the issue of Ukraine, partly because of events on the battlefield and a shift in the approach of foreign policy elites in Washington. It has also been changed by the war in Gaza and the EU’s support for Israel’s military operation there, which has undermined its moral authority, not only in China but throughout the Global South.
Michel said that he and von der Leyen came to China “to promote our values and to protect our interests”. Their Chinese hosts will have listened carefully to the latter but Europe is finding it ever harder to find an audience anywhere for the former.