The return of the European Union Chamber of Commerce's 'European Tour' to China
This article was originally published in Italian in Panorama on 20th Mar 2023.
Please note that this is a courtesy translation of the Italian language article originally published in the Panorama Magazine Issue at: https://www.panorama.it/economia/tour-europeo-camera-commercio-ue-cina
Up until just a few years ago, the European Chamber held a decades-long tradition of annual visits to Brussels to present the European Chamber’s National Position Paper to senior EU representatives, allowing the European Chamber to ensure that its messages are heard and understood by European influential individuals in politics, businesses, media, academia.
During our past visits to Brussels, we met with many high-level officials from European institutions, including several Vice-Presidents and EU Commission President Barroso. This is why the Chamber of Commerce has a unique role in the world, as it can conduct dialogues with top executives of European institutions, Chinese institutions, and also with business representatives. Therefore, we would like to show our appreciation to our colleagues in Brussels for their commitment to this initiative.
After a two-year hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the first trip to the EU since February 2020 started on the 9th of January consisting of the President of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China Joerg Wuttke, the vice-presidents (including myself), some members of the boards of the European Chamber chapters, and representatives of the various working groups. During the five-day tour, the delegation had a total of 48 meetings/events, of which 26 were with high-level officials.
On a personal note, I can say that coming back to Brussels after three years was really helpful in understanding how the EU's perception of China has changed.
Memories of the journey day by day
Offline and online meetings as we know are not the same thing. Despite the incredible ease of conducting an online meeting that has characterized the past few years, communication problems and misunderstandings can arise when discussions take place through a computer screen, so returning to face-to-face meetings was already a good start.
On the first day of the week, we had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Villarino Camilo, Head of Cabinet of the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, which was followed by a discussion about China's restart after the abolition of the Zero-COVID policy with H.E. Fu Cong, Head of the Chinese Mission to the European Union.
During the second day we had one of the most important meetings of the week. In fact, we had the honor of meeting the Executive Vice President of the European Commission for An Economy that Works for People and European Commissioner for Trade Valdis Dombrovskis, to whom we once again raised the issues of the lack of equal treatment between foreign and domestic companies, IPR problems and market access for European investors in the Chinese business market. We were then able to meet with representatives from the Directorate-General for Financial Stability, Financial Services and the Capital Markets Union (DG FISMA), the Directorate-General for Mobility and Transport (DG MOVE), a number of MEPs and senior institutions in what was a packed day.
The highlight of the third day was the meeting with Sabine Weyand, Director General of the European Commission's Directorate-General for Trade (DG TRADE), with whom we had an interesting discussion on activities to support European business in China. We also had the pleasure of discussing with many MEPs from different political parties, in particular, the Italian members present, such as Nicola Danti, Vice-President of the Renew Europe Group and Paolo Borchia representing the Italian political party Lega. Finally, two important meetings soon followed, one with Bernd Lange, Member of the European Parliament and President of the Committee on International Trade, and the other with Manfred Weber, Member of the European Parliament and President of the European People's Party (EPP).
The fourth and fifth days were certainly the most intense days of the visit. The highlights were the meeting with Frédéric Bernard, Head of Cabinet of Charles Michel and President of the European Council, and the meeting with Marco Buti, Head of Cabinet of Paolo Gentiloni, European Commissioner for the Economy.
The general view that emerged from this visit is that Europe is identifying a unique approach to China, which is at the same time partner, competitor, and systemic rival. Traditionally, the main purpose of our meetings in Brussels has been to explain the key recommendations contained in the European Chamber's National Position Paper. This year our slogan 'Ideology Trumps the Economy' became even more relevant given the Zero-COVID policy and the series of hard lockdowns that several Chinese cities including the financial capital of Shanghai have suffered.
The message was to resume dialogue with the assessment of strategic vulnerabilities and opportunities for cooperation between the EU and China.
After Brussels to Paris
After concluding our visits to Brussels, the heart of EU operations, part of the delegation travelled to Paris, where we had a very high-level meeting with Dr. Muriel Lacoue-Labarthe, Deputy Director General of the French Ministry of Economy and Finance, with whom we discussed the hot topic of green bonds and the problems for European banks in China. Another important point of discussion with our French counterparts was the role of the European banking sector in China, which currently represents only 1% of the market (this 1% includes HSBC).
We also had the privilege of meeting Dr Louis Riquet, Head of the East Asia Department and Deputy Director for the Far East at the French Ministry of European and Foreign Affairs, to whom we presented the European Chamber's publications and the realities of doing business in China for European companies and the scenario for 2023.
Over the course of these intense days, we had the honor to speak with some of the EU's leading representatives and officials to showcase the current situation in China and discuss a multitude of different topics, including the semiconductor industry in Taiwan, the opportunities for European companies in China, but also the challenges facing them, such as market access barriers, vertical integration and intellectual property rights. Our counterparts in Europe really appreciated having people on the ground in China who could provide a true representation of the state of European companies.
Finally, I had the pleasure of personally leading the delegation to the meeting with the Permanent Representation of Sweden to the EU, which will hold the EU Council Presidency from January to June this year.
A big thank you to all the delegates who joined this EU trip, to the EUCCC staff who organised the agenda to perfection, and a big applause to our President Wuttke who guided us through this important moment, allowing us to exchange valuable information with the relevant European institutions.
To conclude, the future of EU-China relations is at an interesting crossroads: while much has changed on both sides in recent years, the time has come to rebuild trust and engagement through people-to-people exchanges. The EU and China must understand the opportunities for cooperation, but also be aware of the risks.
EU investment in China has decreased, but we still have a significant impact on the Chinese economy, both through taxation and employment. China has the means to influence the approach the EU will use in the future, as well as that of European investors; the first step is to reduce the current 967 recommendations in the European Chamber's National Position Paper to make more of our European colleagues feel safe entering the Chinese market.