Italy’s participation in China’s giant “Silk Road” infrastructure project sparked an outcry in Germany on Sunday (24 March), including a call for the European Union to block such deals with a veto.
“The expansion of transport links between Europe and Asia is in itself a good thing – as long as the autonomy and sovereignty of Europe is not endangered,” the EU’s budget commissioner, Günther Oettinger, told the Funke newspaper group.
But the German commissioner said he viewed “with concern that in Italy and other European countries, infrastructure of strategic importance like power networks, rapid rail lines or harbours are no longer in European but in Chinese hands.”
“Europe urgently needs a China strategy, that lives up to its name,” he added.
Noting that EU member states were sometimes not adequately taking into account national and European interests, Oettinger suggested that “an European veto right, or a requirement of European consent – exercised by the Commission – could be worth considering.”
Oettinger’s call came after German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas had sharp words for Rome over its deal with Beijing.
“In a world with giants like China, Russia or our partners in the United States, we can only survive if we are united as the EU,” Maas told Welt am Sonntag newspaper.
“And if some countries believe that they can do clever business with the Chinese, then they will be surprised when they wake up and find themselves dependant.
“China is not a liberal democracy,” he stressed.
Europe has been struggling to find a coherent strategy to deal with China. While the continent desperately needs to keep China on its side as a trade ally, it is also wary of the Chinese state’s ambitions and growing global clout.
Italy-China “protocol” signed
Italy on Saturday signed a “non-binding” protocol with China to take part in Beijing’s new “Silk Road” of transport and trade links stretching from Asia to Europe.
In doing so, Italy became the first G7 country to sign up for the massive project, which has sparked unease in the US and the European Union as China aspires to a greater world role.
China’s President Xi Jinping has said it would be a two-way street of investment and trade.
Visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte both attended a ceremony for the signing of 29 memoranda of understanding, which Italian media said were worth €5.0 to €7.0 billion.
Italian financial daily Il Sole 24 Ore said the value of the Chinese investments could rise to €20 billion but would for now be limited to the strategic ports of Genoa and Trieste.
“We are well aware, with this memorandum of understanding, that there is risk as well as opportunity,” said secretary of state for the economy Michele Geraci, who spent a decade working in China.
Italy has made a point of giving Xi a fulsome welcome, despite the misgivings in Washington and Brussels. Conte is due to sign further deals during a visit to China on April 26 to 27.
Their aim was to correct the imbalance in which Chinese goods were arriving in Italy, but not enough Italian goods were going the other way, said Di Maio.
Critics say Beijing’s ambitious maritime, rail and road venture is “predatory” and overwhelmingly favours China and Chinese companies.
But on Friday, Xi rejected any idea of a conflict of interest after talks with his Italian counterpart Sergio Mattarella.
“China wants commercial exchanges to go both ways and for investment to flow in both directions,” Xi said.
Mattarella responded that business must go “in both directions… with fair competition, respecting intellectual property rights while fighting counterfeit goods”.
In what some perceived as a snub, Italy’s far-right Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini did not attend Friday’s state dinner for Xi at Mattarella’s Quirinal Palace, having stated that Italy would be “no-one’s colony”.
Salvini has notably urged caution about using Chinese telecom giant Huawei’s next generation 5G mobile technology. His coalition partner Luigi Di Maio is keener for Chinese partnerships.
Following his visit to Italy, Xi stopped in Monaco on the French Riviera Sunday before meeting later in the evening with France’s Emmanuel Macron.