The Blog of Changes - Duncan Freeman

Following his accession to the position of President of the European Council, Donald Tusk received a phone call from President Xi Jinping, and an invitation to visit China. It is not clear whether these initiatives by President Xi were preplanned, but there will be much to discuss when the two do meet. At the ceremony where he took over the position of European Council President Tusk set out his priorities. These raise a number of questions both for the EU and its place in the world, and more specifically for its relations with China.

There were two broad themes underlying Tusk’s priorities. The first is geography. All four of his priorities have geographical element, and three deal with external policy, but their focus is notable for what they leave out rather than what they take in. The first priority is to defend Europe from internal and external enemies. The second is to deal with the European economic crisis. The third to secure Europe’s borders and support those in the neighbourhood who share “our values”. The fourth is to advance relations between Europe and the US.

The invisibility of China and more broadly Asia in Tusk’s worldview is remarkable. One might be forgiven for thinking that what the IMF recognizes as the world’s largest economy or the region that consistently leads the world in economic growth might get a mention based on these facts alone. The question is even wider, as not just Asia but almost every other continent on the globe is entirely absent from his priorities. The focus on domestic challenges is perhaps understandable given the dire problems that the EU and the Eurozone face. The attention to neighbouring countries, for which we can read Ukraine and the problem with Russia, is also understandable. But this leaves out vast swathes of the world, not just China and Asia, as at best secondary considerations. Tusk apparently believes that the EU has no significant global role beyond its own neighbourhood. His focus on the importance of the relationship with the US merely emphasizes this, as there can be no doubt which side of the Atlantic will dominate.

The second key theme in Tusk’s priorities is values. Out of the four areas that he said were crucial for success during his term in office, three directly or indirectly invoked values. The first was to protect the EU’s fundamental values from threats both inside and outside. The third is for Europe to secure its borders and support those in the neighbourhood who share its values. The fourth, without providing any specific objective, again can be said to have invoked values, stating that, “the relations between Europe and the United States are the backbone of the community of democracies.”

There are a number of problems with such a value laden set of foreign policy priorities. The most obvious is that such policies normally exist only as rhetoric rather than substance, another is that they generally do not achieve the goals they proclaim. They are thus usually open to the double charge of both hypocrisy and failure. In the case of China, the EU has long since decided that prioritizing values is not a productive strategy. If the commitment to values is real, priorities that see the world divided by those who hold “our values” and those who do not, the enemies of our values, risks making the EU irrelevant. If China does figure on Tusk’s agenda, a values based approach will diminish rather than increase the EU’s influence in the relationship, and probably also in that with many other Asian countries who are looking for an EU that offers more than lectures about values.

To be set against this, one interesting aspect of Tusk’s priorities is his emphasis on European (“our”) values. His proclaimed goal of defending European values implies that they are only European, rather than making any claim to their universality. This may be realistic, recognizing the limits of claims to universality of European values that often do not travel well beyond their place of origin. But is also implies a lesser global role for the EU, reducing its visibility. A Europe with only European values also means that its position as a normative power, one of its positives often attributed to the global role of the EU, is diminished. This may, however, make Tusk’s value agenda easier for China and others to live with. A Europe that defends European values allows for others to defend their own values as equally legitimate. In the case of China, this has been one of the foreign policy aims of Xi Jinping since he came to power.

All of Donald Tusk’s priorities deal with short-term problems and do not offer a long-term vision. Given the enormity of the EU’s problems, this may be understandable. But this focus has consequences. It is not clear if it is actually Donald Tusk’s intention to make most of the world’s continents invisible to the EU, and Europe invisible on most of the world’s continents, but that is what his priorities imply.

These lacunae should be of concern to Europeans because, in as far as they concern external relations, they fail to take into account most of the world outside the EU. In the case of China, the focus on values may be problematic. But more important is the invisibility of China, which is not just an economic giant but also an important global actor that the EU cannot ignore. China increasingly sees itself in these terms, and frequently asserts the importance of the relationship it has with the EU. Tusk’s priorities will raise questions about how serious the EU is in developing relations with China. At the same time, for China, Tusk’s diminished view of the EU as not being a global actor, and one that is tied to the US, will be a cause for concern,. In China’s multipolar worldview, the EU is, or at least should be, a pole in the global order.

Tusk will no doubt learn on the job. He is not entirely unfamiliar with China, and Asia. While Prime Minister of Poland, he dealt with both. He has visited China, and received high-level visits from Chinese leaders. The phone call, during which Xi reiterated his view of the importance of the EU-China relationship, and invitation to visit China could be read as a reminder that there is more to the world than Tusk’s priorities suggest.

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