EU and China should not start from zero on redefining their relationship

Written by Reinhard Bütikofer on 1 July 2015 in Opinion

The EU and China should highlight and celebrate the benefits of their relationship over the last 40 years, writes Reinhard Bütikofer.

When China and the EU first started their diplomatic relationship 40 years ago, the Chinese Cultural Revolution wasn't yet over and in the EU the development of transnational democracy with a directly elected European parliament had not yet begun. China then was a very poor country, not the economic powerhouse it is today.

The EU over the years has grown from nine members to 28. Both China and the EU then also had a difficult relationship with a superpower, which of course doesn't exist anymore, the Soviet Union.

While China at the end of the 1970s embarked on a new journey defined by the policy of reforming and opening up, Europe around the same time started its ambitious trajectory towards an 'ever closer union'.


China rose rapidly under its new course and the EU simultaneously grew in strength, cohesion and attraction, but it is also fair to say that there is rarely progress without new contradictions.

We should celebrate that both sides have benefited from our relationship over the last 40 years, notwithstanding setbacks such as the June 4 Tiananmen square crackdown on China's democracy movement of 1989.

We should build a future relationship on the basis of the successes in our bilateral relationship as well as on a keen sense of realism which acknowledges weaknesses and downsides on an open dialogue, which does not shy away from difficult topics, and on the ambition to transform the relationship according to the internal and international necessities of today and tomorrow.

Historic achievements can never be taken for granted. The European Union is presently experiencing a phase of transition. We don't know yet which direction that will take. It could lead from integration via stagnation to disintegration or it could, hopefully, lead towards more unity and solidarity and more democratic accountability.

China is also transitioning. The country's leaders want to create a new economic order and they are obviously changing the political system of the country, even though it is unclear whether that will lead to real rule of law and even democracy.

Both in China and in the EU, leaders have to reckon with citizens that are making their voices heard. An open-minded exchange about all this would not only help further mutual understanding, but also enhance self-awareness through the mirror of the other.

There are also challenges that although not specifically related to the EU-China bilateral relationship, are still of paramount importance for our cooperation. The most notable of these is the fight against global warming and environmental protection.

As trading giants, China and the EU control a huge proportion of the global economy, are present with their international activities across the world and share three of the five permanent UN security council seats between them. They therefore bear a particular responsibility to show leadership.

My impression is that China has focused more on cooperating with the US on issues of global governance than with the EU and that the EU has been too constrained and self-centred to show a realistic measure of involvement in issues that may not concern our immediate neighbourhood, but do certainly concern our values and our interests.

Of course redefining the EU-China relationship cannot start from zero. We will not write new poems on virgin paper, but on palimpsest. Let's move beyond just reciting old poems that we have grown accustomed to. "Nothing is difficult in this world" a Chinese sage once wrote, "if there is the will to scale the heights".


About the author

Reinhard Bütikofer (Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance) is a vice chair of parliament's delegation for relations with the People's Republic of China

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