A Common Policy without Common Perceptions?
WASHINGTON – Europe’s relationship with China is at a crucial moment, and the United States should be paying attention. With the creation of a unified European foreign policy under the Lisbon Treaty, Brussels now has the authority and the tools to build a stronger relationship with Beijing. And officials on both sides appear anxious to do so. The European Union’s foreign minister, High Representative Catherine Ashton, recently visited China, and Premier Wen Jiabao is visiting Europe in early October.
Yet, it is still unclear whether the EU will be able to take advantage of opportunities like these to forge closer ties. While European officials seem ready to act, their publics are dubious and divided. And a foreign policy that lacks public support may not be sustainable in the long run. So Ashton’s challenge is twofold: to build a consensus among European elites on sensitive topics, including Tibet, Taiwan, and Chinese treatment of human rights, and to frame that China policy in a way that garners public support.
The 2010 Transatlantic Trends survey* underscores just how difficult the latter will be. In September, the EU’s leaders stressed that building a strategic relationship with China was important to promote “bilateral trade, market access for goods and services, and investment conditions.” But European publics are sharply divided over whether China presents more of an opportunity of a new market for European exports and investment or whether China poses a threat to European jobs and economic security. While only about one-quarter of the Dutch (23%) and the Romanians (26%) see China as an economic threat, majorities of Italians (57%), Spanish (58%), Polish (59%), French (63%) and Portuguese (64%) feel economically endangered by China. If European publics cannot agree on the basics—whether China is an economic threat or opportunity—how can Ashton begin to promote a common policy that European publics will support? Strategic partnerships are supposed to be based on mutual interests, but only 39% of EU respondents feel they share enough common interests with China to work together on international problems. Slovaks (24%) and Poles (29%) were the least likely to say they have common interests with China while the Dutch (48%) are the most likely. Such sentiment contrasts dramatically with attitudes in the United States, where the majority (58%) feels they share enough common interests with China to work together. If the majority of European respondents (52%) feel that China and the EU have such different interests that cooperating on international problems is impossible, it is unclear how Ashton frames a strategic partnership in a way that would garner public support. Arguing for a partnership based on shared values would only make matters worse. Only 29% of Europeans feel they share enough common values with the Chinese to work together and 63% feel that they have such different values that it is impossible to work together. Alternatively, waiting it out until public concern about the economic crisis begins to recede and hoping this leads to more convergence of opinions is unlikely to help. Views on China as an economic threat or opportunity are largely unchanged since the last time GMF asked this question in June of 2007—before news of the economic crisis began to shape public opinion. To be successful, Ashton will have to focus on issues where European publics not only have a clear opinion, but where most already see eye-to-eye on China. A strong majority of EU respondents (68%) say it is likely that Beijing will exert strong leadership in world affairs five years from now. And this belief is common across the EU—solid majorities feel this way in all EU countries surveyed with the exception of Poland (41%) and Romania (47%).
Seeing China as a major international player in five years is especially pronounced among the British (81%), Germans (80%), Spaniards (78%), and Italians (77%). So Ashton faces an uphill struggle to fashion a coherent European policy toward China, especially one that enjoys public support. If nothing else, most Europeans can agree that China will play a leading role in future world affairs. Europeans need to realize that they can’t afford to not have a strategy for dealing with the world’s second largest economic power—even if European values and interests are perceived as different. European leaders must create a narrative that brings the public together. Emphasizing China’s future and current power should be the starting point.
Zsolt Nyiri is the director of Transatlantic Trends, and Ben Veater-Fuchs is a program assistant for Transatlantic Trends at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC.
* Transatlantic Trends is a comprehensive annual survey of American and European public opinion. This year, the interviews were conducted between June 1 and June 29, 2010, in the United States and 12 European countries: Bulgaria, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. The survey is a project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Compagnia di San Paolo, with additional support from the Fundação Luso-Americana, Fundación BBVA, and the Tipping Point Foundation.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.