Macron and Merkel hope climate talks with Xi can help take sting out of China-EU tensions

Finbarr Bermingham
·5-min read

Friday’s trilateral climate meeting involving Chinese leader Xi Jinping is seen as an attempt by France and Germany to prevent broader relations from “falling apart”, after weeks of mounting EU-China tensions.

The Chinese foreign ministry said on Thursday that Xi would meet virtually with French and German counterparts Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel, respectively, as US climate envoy John Kerry spends a second day in talks with officials in Shanghai.

EU should see China’s rise as an opportunity, Xi tells Merkel

It is the latest effort at de-escalation from Europe’s most powerful national leaders, following Merkel’s call with Xi last week, which came on the heels of a fiery exchange of sanctions that threaten to upend an EU-China investment deal.

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Europe has vowed to base future relations with China on a strategy of “cooperate, compete and confront”, with climate being viewed as one of the few areas in which cooperation is currently possible.

“Many European politicians hope that climate change will be an area where we can still work well together, to a certain extent this is an idealistic attempt to prevent us from not working together at all, and to prevent the relationship from falling apart entirely,” said Bernhard Bartsch, an analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin.

China’s swift retaliation to the EU’s first sanctions since the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989 is said to have alarmed senior EU leaders. Both France and Germany are strong backers of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI), the bilateral pact that took seven years to negotiate.

But the agreement is in jeopardy, after Beijing sanctioned dozens of European elected officials whose votes are needed to ratify the CAI. Merkel and Macron’s advances are seen by analysts as a way of steadying the ship.

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Last week’s call was arranged at the invitation of Merkel, while Macron has invited Xi to join this week, the Chinese government said.

According to reports in France, the video conference will also have health issues on the agenda. It is not being billed as a summit, but rather a regular preparatory session ahead of next week’s Earth Day when 40 world leaders will discuss climate issues over two days from April 22 in an event hosted by US President Joe Biden.

Friday’s call is also seen as Europe’s way of remaining in the driving seat on climate issues. Brussels was the main sponsor of multilateral climate change efforts during former US president Donald Trump’s tenure – a four-year period when Washington was disinterested, even sceptical, of the issues.

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“I was surprised by this summit, and my immediate thoughts are that Macron and Merkel seem not to want Biden and Kerry to be alone in the driving seat on climate action,” said Simone Tagliapietra, a research fellow specialising in climate issues at Bruegel, a Brussels-based think tank.

“Over the last four years, the EU has been really leading global climate diplomacy. After the US’ withdrawal from the Paris agreement by president Trump, the responsibility of really fostering global cooperation and diplomacy has been on Europe,” he added.

There is relief across Europe that Biden has re-engaged on climate, viewed as the existential issue for this and future generations. But there is also wariness that in four years and another US election, the tables could turn once again, with the Republican Party still sceptical on climate issues.

This measure of distrust is manifested in Brussels’ foreign policy of “strategic autonomy”. This was cited as a determining factor in the EU’s pursuit of the CAI, even as it became clear that under Biden, the US would return to the multilateral table.

“I would even argue that the EU may have been deterred from being more hawkish towards Beijing in the late stages of the Trump administration out of concern for not appearing to be following in the former US president’s footsteps,” said Andrew Bishop, head of research at advisory firm Signum Global Partners.

“In other words: the EU will keep growing more demanding vis-à-vis China, but on its own terms – not as a result of US efforts to align transatlantic positions on the matter,” he added.

The Chinese foreign ministry’s readout of last week’s Xi-Merkel call showed Xi urging Europe to de-escalate tensions, deploying Brussels’ favoured terminology to boot. “[Xi] hopes that the EU will make correct judgment independently and truly achieve strategic autonomy,” it read.

There is also recognition in Europe that global targets on climate issues will be impossible to achieve without the involvement of China, the world’s most populous nation and second biggest economy.

“China’s involvement is key to achieving the objectives of the Paris Agreement, not only because of China’s position as the world’s largest emitter, but also because of its regional influence through the Belt and Road Initiative,” said Hiroki Sekine, visiting fellow in Chatham House’s Asia-Pacific programme.

“The EU has been working with China on climate change for a long time and hence is in a good position to encourage further action both within China and across the region,” he added.

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