Global Europe Brief: Bowing to the Chinese pressure?

Welcome to EURACTIV’s Global Europe Brief, your weekly update on the EU in the global perspective from our foreign affairs news team: Georgi Gotev and Alexandra Brzozowski.

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EU risks PR reverse

Since the outbreak of the virus in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the Chinese government has run a massive campaign of disinformation and intimidation, with the international community accusing Beijing of covering up or delaying crucial facts about the pandemic.

Even before the start of the pandemic, the EU has been a target of disinformation campaigns, mostly by Russia and domestic nationalist actors. However, since the emergence of COVID-19, foreign malign influencers have upped their game.

The European External Action Service (EEAS), about to publish a report about how Russia and China are increasing their disinformation campaigns across Europe, has denied media reports that it toned down allegations made against China as part of a report into state-led disinformation campaigns, following pressure from Beijing.

The EU’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell will appear in front of AFET Committee members in the European Parliament to discuss this issue in detail this afternoon.

The awkward incident comes against the background of a general suspicion towards Beijing’s intentions since the start of the crisis.

Just ahead of the disinfo leak, European Commission VP Věra Jourová chided the EU for what she said was its “morbid dependency” on China and India for medical supplies.

After surviving its own coronavirus ordeal, Beijing has found itself in the unique position of a country able and willing to help all those who need help and has stepped up ‘mask diplomacy’ efforts to send equipment and experts to Europe.

And as Europe enters a recession induced by the pandemic, European officials are bracing for another possible wave of strategic takeovers and acquisitions by Chinese companies, much like they saw after the 2008 financial crisis, as asset prices have crumbled around the world. EU’s competition chief Margrethe Vestager only recently warned that European governments should buy stakes in key companies to prevent a Chinese buying spree.

IMAGE OF THE WEEK | Italian President Sergio Mattarella on 75th anniversary of Liberation Day in Rome, Italy, 25 April 2020. Italians are not able to go out and celebrate the anniversary due to the nationwide lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. EPA-EFE/PAOLO GIANDOTTI

EU IN THE WORLD

DELAYED MISSION. The EU’s delayed naval mission to enforce an arms embargo on Libya, Operation IRINI, will be ready to begin work in the coming days, EU officials confirmed on Wednesday, two days after Libyan militia commander Khalifa Haftar terminated a 2015 UN agreement, reducing the chances of a political solution to the conflict.

MIGRANTS SEA RESCUES. The EU should stop channelling funds to Libya to manage migration and train its coastguard as it is not a “safe country” for disembarkation of people rescued at sea, MEPs in the European Parliament’s LIBE Committee heard from officials and experts. Some of them were calling for a code of conduct on migrant sea rescues. The call comes just ahead of the anticipated European Commission Pact on Asylum and Migration, which according to the European Commission’s work programme was meant to be adopted in the first quarter of 2020 but was delayed due to the pandemic.

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, health and financial policies, in particular, have increasingly become the focus of the EU’s solidarity debate. But what about EU asylum and refugee policy?

COVID-19 PASSPORT. Nine southern member states – Italy, Greece, Spain, Portugal, France, Malta, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Romania – have called on the EU to come up with a “homogenous” plan to help tourism mitigate the catastrophic financial impact of the COVID-19 crisis. EURACTIV’s Karla Junicic and Sarantis Michalopoulos have more details here.

The call comes after Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton promised to prioritise support to Europe’s tourism industry and called for fast action to recover and build a resilient and sustainable tourism industry.

SAHEL SUPPORT. EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell, along with Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, announced an additional €194 support package to the Sahel region, in a bid to safeguard the region’s security, stability and resilience. “The situation in the Sahel keeps deteriorating and the coronavirus pandemic cannot make us forget how serious the situation is in a region whose challenges are our challenges as well, ” Borrell said in a Twitter post. EU countries discussed a request for debt relief from five Sahel countries as part of efforts to help them cope with the pandemic.

DEFENCE CORNER

MILITARY SPENDING. Global military expenditure saw its biggest uptick in a decade in 2019, rising to $1.9 trillion, according to the latest survey by the Swedish Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
Two things to watch:

  • 1) It was the first year two Asian countries, China and India, were among the top three spenders, mainly due to the recent “return to a competition of the great powers” perceived by the Americans.
  • 2) Europe’s expenditure rose more rapidly than in any other region, with Germany having the highest growth and being the country with the highest expenditure in the EU.

PRESIDENCY TAKE-OVER. Estonia is set to take over the presidency of the UN Security Council for a month from 1 May. According to foreign minister Urmas Reinsalu, one of the priorities will be the connections between the COVID-19 pandemic and the security environment, cybersecurity, and the fundamental principles of international law, including the protection of civilians.

MFF REVISION. While Europe is currently facing an unprecedented sanitary crisis, which will have gigantic economic consequences and could turn into a severe depression, a group of experts argues that defence should be included in the critical sectors as the EU renegotiates its next long-term budget that will seek to boost recovery.

ENLARGEMENT LATEST

PANDEMIC AID. EU and Western Balkans leaders will gather via videoconference on 6 May 2020 for a meeting initially foreseen as a physical summit in Zagreb. Ahead of the summit next week, the European Commission announced over €3.3 billion of EU financial support mobilised jointly with the European Investment Bank to the benefit of the Western Balkans, which aims to address the immediate health and humanitarian needs of the COVID-19 pandemic and help with the social and economic recovery in the region.

SERBIAN CHOICES. Although EU membership is Serbia’s official foreign policy goal, Russia and China – and perhaps the US in the future – are providing something that is much more valuable for the Serbian leaders: a hope that the drawing of the national borders will be possible again, Filip Milacic, advisor at the OSCE Mission in Montenegro, writes in an op-ed for EURACTIV.

EURASIA DIGEST

‘FLEXIBLE’ SANCTIONS. The current European stance is that sanctions related to the conflict in Donbas can only be lifted once the 2015 ceasefire deal, signed in Minsk, is fully implemented. But voices are getting louder that the EU should reconsider its ‘all or nothing’ approach to sanctions imposed on Russia for its role in the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine, as well as its annexation of Crimea, a new report suggests. A Brussels-based think tank has now called for the easing of certain sanctions in exchange for Russian progress towards peace in Ukraine.

KAZAKH HOSPITAL. In only 13 days, Kazakhstan has built a new hospital for COVID-19 patients in the capital Nur-Sultan, a feat comparable only to what China achieved earlier this year. Although Kazakhstan is not among the heavily affected countries, its pandemic response has been swift and detailed.

US ELECTION WATCH

It’s 187 days until the US presidential elections and President Donald Trump’s handling of the pandemic health crisis has started to produce some political emergency as well. His rival Joe Biden, meanwhile, deals with a different kind of pressure.

What to watch and why it matters: According to the latest Gallup poll, Trump’s favorability rating, mostly stable throughout his presidency, has ticked down from 49% in mid-March to 43%. And Trump seems to notice: He lashed out at his top political advisers last week when they presented him with worrisome polling data that showed his support eroding in a series of battleground states as his handling of the coronavirus comes under criticism because of the high death toll and a huge economic impact.

Meanwhile, activists and women’s rights advocates have grown increasingly frustrated over the past few weeks as Joe Biden has held back on addressing the sexual assault allegation made against him by a woman who worked in his Senate office in the 1990s.

WHAT ELSE WE’RE READING 

ON OUR RADAR FOR THE NEXT DAYS…

The regular institutional cycle has temporarily ground to a halt. But we’ll continue to keep you updated on all relevant EU foreign affairs news, as operations moved exclusively online.
  • Borrell in European Parliament’s AFET Committee
    | Thursday, 30 April 2020 | webstream
    EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell will appear in front of MEPs to discuss the latest EEAS report about disinformation on COVID19, allegedly watered down by pressure from China.
  • World Press Freedom Day
    | Sunday, 3 May 2020 | worldwide
  • EU hosts vaccine donors conference
    | Monday, 4 May 2020 | videoconference
  • EU-Western Balkans Summit
    | Wednesday, 6 May 2020 | videoconference

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