Europe's Year-End Blow to the West | Opinion

A year of China's geopolitical lawlessness and domestic abuses ended with a gratuitous giveaway from the European Union—a one-sided, opaque and deceptive investment deal, put on hold by COVID-19 after seven years in the works but single-handedly rushed to a conclusion last Wednesday by Angela Merkel.

The deal indicates that the incoming Biden administration will have to make a difficult choice: either reset transatlantic cooperation to its pre-2016 status, or stand up to Beijing. The Biden team has staked most of its strategic outlook on the hope of a transatlantic front to counterbalance China. Before inauguration day, it has to wake up to the obvious: one must take priority over the other. Only by realizing that Europe has objectives in China other than holding its regime accountable will America's sincere commitment to that goal reach its maximum effect.

Much of the EU's overdone boosterism about the deal speaks for itself. European Commission president Ursula Von der Leyen has praised it for simultaneously "upholding our interests and promoting our core values." But the actual draft confirms what all who have witnessed China over the last decade should know by now—that the EU sacrificed "core values" to advance its interests. Yes, the agreement will open up new service sectors to European investors, hinder technology transfers and add some transparency to state-run companies and other forms of market rigging. The EU is hailing these modest concessions from China's state-capitalist apparatus as major wins, but most of them were already in the offing and a trilateral deal with the U.S. would likely have accomplished more on human rights.

More gravely, the deal does nothing to address China's mass enslavement of its Muslim population. At best, it will kill ongoing efforts by human-rights advocates and China hawks at the European Parliament to rid the continent's supply chains of forced Uyghur labor. At worst, it will embed new European entrants into those same chains. The official text asks China to comply with a number of International Labor Organization (ILO) provisions it has already ratified while providing no enforcement mechanisms or ways to monitor its behavior. Given that China is a founding signatory of the ILO and the world capital of modern slavery, the deal's attempt to get Beijing to ratify additional ILO provisions will prove equally meaningless.

Any last-minute attempts, from either side of the Atlantic, to fix the deal shouldn't fool anyone. Realistically, any watering down of the deal's concessions between now and its final signing will be marginal. What few amendments were already achieved were the result of France's largely insincere role-playing as the EU's tough-on-China holdout. For all of French trade minister Franck Riester's qualms and Macron's aggrieved body language at the livestreamed signing, the deal itself has the blessing of both ends of the Franco-German axis. By delivering a deal before Germany's presidency of the EU Council runs out, Merkel has upheld her end of the bargain. France will be in charge of launching the deal's implementation when it takes over in 2022, after Portugal holds the role in the intervening year.

Angela Merkel
German Chancellor Angela Merkel leaves after answering questions posed by parliamentarians at the Bundestag during the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic on December 16, 2020 in Berlin, Germany. Michele Tantussi/Getty

Yes, EU parliamentarians (MEPs) still need to ratify the draft—a lower threshold than far less problematic deals of the past, which allowed member-state legislatures to chime in. But even though the European Parliament is directly elected and reflects the increasingly China-skeptical views of the EU public, it is but one piece in Brussels' institutional maze. The far more powerful EU Council and Commission are in the grip of a monolithic consensus that also holds a parliamentary majority, which it will leverage to typecast any outrage at the concessions as a European version of Trumpism. Whatever their present concerns with the deal, MEPs from the three main political groupings—the center-right EPP, the social-democrats of S&D and the liberal-centrists of ALDE—are committed to securing Merkel's win, while adjoining parties such as the Greens will refrain from inflicting on Europe yet another institutional paralysis.

But even though the deal is near sure to pass in its original, crooked version, Biden's team should stay put as the process concludes. By observing Brussels' sinuous lawmaking process, they may learn a lot about the kind of "allies" they're stuck with the next four years. The lack of consultation with Washington and the likely unenforceable commitments extracted from China are both notable in themselves, but together they reveal the geopolitical gamble the EU is attempting through this deal. As UnHerd's Aris Roussinos argues, both gimmicks send the same message: the EU will pursue collaboration with China over accountability of its regime.

Given the bloc's insistence throughout this year that the fuzzy agenda of "strategic autonomy" wouldn't hamper transatlantic cooperation, any future statements of goodwill toward Biden should be taken with a pinch of salt. As outgoing national security advisor Matt Pottinger has pointed out, Trump's berating of Europe's defense fecklessness the past four years was an excuse for Europeans to turn away from a common transatlantic effort against China. Biden's presence in the Oval Office will change nothing about that intent.

However heavily the EU cloaks this deal in virtue-signaling refrains—claiming that advancing human rights requires giving tyrants a pass—the reason it went ahead with the agreement a mere fortnight before Biden takes office and without even a courtesy call is that it knows full well how injurious the move will be to transatlantic trust. Distancing itself from the U.S. to extend China a hand is not a price worth paying for market access, and not even EU leaders expect Beijing to understand the language of soft incentives at this point. No, driving a transatlantic wedge is the final goal—one that China has long pursued, and that the EU has now conceded on a silver platter. Market access for European firms is merely a token win that the EU wields to sugarcoat an atrocious deal.

To be sure, this is not a gamble that all EU leaders will agree to, and Biden's team would be wise to keep bilateral channels open with Macron and some of the more China-skeptical countries to Germany's east. Yet it's a gamble that Merkel has chosen to make in the name of Europe as a whole, on the morally bankrupt premise that China's inevitable rise requires that the continent abandon its values to stay relevant. If anything, the deal falsifies the popular impression that between her and the far worse China appeasers in Germany's corporate community, Merkel was the lesser of two evils. As last week's disgraceful news made clear, Merkel was in fact their best advocate.

Jorge González-Gallarza (@JorgeGGallarza) is the co-host of the Uncommon Decency podcast on European issues (@UnDecencyPod) and an associate researcher at Fundación Civismo.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.