European Institutional Complexities and EU-Taiwan Relations

European Institutional Complexities and EU-Taiwan Relations
Photo Credit: CNA

What you need to know

The European Union and its member states are enhancing their political relations with Taiwan, but it comes more expressly from the action of their legislative branches rather than their executive actors.

By David Camroux and Earl Wang

The European Union’s foreign policy practice involves multiple institutions and multi-level governance. The resulting complexity in its foreign policy decision-making has allowed it to remain agnostic and interpret the “One China” policy to suit multiple interests.

In September 2022, the Director of the European Union Intelligence and Situation Centre (INTCEN) Jose Casimiro Morgado cancelled a visit to Taiwan. Anonymously sourced reports suggested that Beijing had learned about the planned meeting and had had it cancelled. Another explanation is that Morgado himself cancelled the meeting given Beijing’s belligerent reaction to the U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.

Whatever its cause, the cancellation of Morgado’s visit must be understood within the context of the European Union’s Taiwan policy and what French President Emmanuel Macron called the end to European naivety about China. In the last few years, the European Union and Taiwan have added a political dimension — involving the interactions of officials — to their solid and close, yet largely functional, relations based on trade and investment.

A concrete paradigm shift towards China can be observed beginning in 2019. The European Union, in coordination with its member states, had become increasingly concerned with Beijing’s growing assertiveness. EU institutions and member-state capitals have also been reinforcing their capabilities to withstand challenges from China.

Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine have provided momentum for European rapprochement with Taiwan. There is a general consensus in Europe on the need to deepen collaboration with like-minded partners. As a democratic and tech-savvy middle power, Taiwan is seen as a trustworthy, informal ally in the Indo-Pacific.

Unlike the United States, European adherence to the “One China” policy has historically meant that officials from the administrative and legislative branches refrained from visiting Taipei. While Beijing may demand adherence to the “One China” principle from countries or regional bodies that it maintains diplomatic relations with, a “One China” policy is simply the way each polity interprets and carries out its relations with China and Taiwan.

Only less than 30% of countries in the world have tailored their “One China” policies to adhere with Beijing’s “One China” principle. The remaining countries, including Australia, established diplomatic relations with Beijing but did not touch upon the issue of Taiwan or did not abide by the “One China” principle by simply not affirming that “Taiwan is a part of China.”

In 1975 the European Commission Vice-President (in charge of external relations) delicately bypassed Beijing’s query about the Taiwan issue by simply stating that it was not a prerogative of the European Economic Community. At the same time, he could affirm that these institutions did not maintain official relations with Taipei. The European Union reaffirmed its “One China” policy in its 2016 and 2019 official communications on relations with China. These documents simply avoided the Taiwan recognition issue.

In recent years, there has been a gradual normalization of visits to Taiwan, from both members of the European Parliament and parliamentarians from EU member states. So far in 2022, Taiwan has received parliamentary delegations from the European Parliament, a joint Baltic countries group, the Czech Republic, France , Germany, Slovakia and Sweden. Nearly all of these delegations to Taiwan had a multiparty composition.

From the executive branch, there have been visits to Taiwan from two Czech, one German, four Lithuanian and one Slovak senior officials.

All member states still maintain their “One China” policies and diplomatic relations exclusively with Beijing rather than Taipei. But they are also keen on enhancing their relationships with Taiwan, including exchanges and cooperation on topics such as the maintenance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. The European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, stated that “we have to continue engaging with Taiwan economically and politically. The fact that we maintain our One China policy does not prevent us from intensifying our cooperation with Taiwan.” 

Members of the European Parliament are the directly elected representatives of their constituencies and have been particularly vocal in expressing their grave concerns regarding Chinese behavior seen as threatening European values and interests. While human rights issues concerning Uyghurs and the demise of “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong have gained greater media attention, China’s coercive behavior vis-a-vis Taiwan has also been featured often. Since September 2021, the European Parliament has adopted eight resolutions or recommendations expressing support for Taiwan. These include the recommendation on EU–Taiwan political relations and cooperation and the resolution on the situation in the Strait of Taiwan.

Given the closer cooperation between the European Union and Taiwan in recent years, Morgado’s cancelled visit to Taiwan raised eyebrows and suggested a limit to EU–Taiwan relations.

Adherence to a “One China” policy still makes official visits from the executive branch to Taipei challenging to undertake. Beijing scrutinizes and seeks to stop any “official” interactions with Taiwan from any polity with which it has diplomatic relations.

Morgado’s cancellation of Taipei may also be attributed to his boss Josep Borrell, who has declared a restrained posture at the European Union’s “highest political level” without plans to visit Taiwan. This suggests that the executive arm of the European Union would like to take a balanced approach.C

The byzantine nature of the European Union’s foreign policy practice allows for different actors to develop diverse approaches towards Taiwan. The European Union and its member states are gradually enhancing their political relations with Taiwan. But this comes more expressly from the action of its legislative branches rather than its executive actors. Issues of diplomatic recognition are simply avoided.

David Camroux is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow and Adjunct Professor at the Centre for International Studies (CERI) Sciences Po. He is also the Co-coordinator of the Franco-German Observatory of the Indo-Pacific.

Earl Wang is doctoral researcher and adjunct lecturer at CERI Sciences Po. He is also a researcher in the Franco-German Indo-Pacific Observatory and is associated with the Institute for Strategic Research (IRSEM).

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from the East Asia Forum. East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centered on the Asia Pacific region.

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