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The United Kingdom’s 2016 referendum vote to leave the European Union marked the beginning of an ongoing period of political uncertainty across Europe. Brexit and key elections that followed in Italy, France, Austria, and Germany revealed divisive national climates discontent with the status-quo. As populist and anti-establishment movements continue to play a role in 2018, many are left wondering what the future will bring for the direction of European politics at large. At the same time, China’s dramatic rise alongside the Trump administration’s ongoing reassessment of U.S. leadership on the international stage suggests the potential for a realignment of the global order. Notably, the intersection of growing Chinese foreign investment and influence across Europe as part of the Belt and Road Initiative and U.S. skepticism towards the continued benefits of globalization offer an opportunity for increased Chinese economic integration with Europe. How will these shifting dynamics impact China’s future engagement with Europe, inter-European relations, and the international system more broadly?
In the lead up to the one-year anniversary of the United Kingdom’s invoking of Article 50 of the Treaty on the European Union, Carnegie-Tsinghua Center Director Paul Haenle moderated a discussion between Carnegie scholars and scholars from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who examined the implications of a fluctuating European political landscape and a more assertive China for China’s relations with Europe and the evolving world order.
This panel was the second of the Carnegie Global Dialogue Series 2017-2018 and cosponsored by the Institute of European Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. This event is off the record.
- The State of European Politics: The conversation examined current trends within the European political landscape, most notably the factors driving the recent rise of populist movements. One discussant argued that European populism has transcended the horizontal left-right spectrum of political choice that has dominated European politics since World War II, replacing it instead with a vertical model that pits elites against the masses. In keeping with this new paradigm, the discussant pointed to the advent of populist movements on both the political left and right, with the former responding primarily to a sense of economic loss and the latter to anxiety about changing cultural values. While both versions of populism have made significant inroads in Southern Europe and Central Europe, a panelist identified three social groups that represent the primary base of support across European populist movements and who feel marginalized or disadvantaged by change: fading or vulnerable labor sectors; rural voters, often agriculturalists; and pensioners.
- The Ramifications of Populism in Europe: The panelists examined whether the current political climate in Europe represents a fundamental or short-term shift, as well as the long-term impacts of populist movements. One discussant identified several key consequences of populism that may endure beyond a potential contraction in years ahead, including: devalued political institutions, a hostile political culture, reduced immigration, re-examined economic frameworks, the convergence of left and right political parties towards the center, and a friendlier posture toward Russia. The panelist anticipated that populism will alter rather than transform the European political landscape. Another discussant posited that populism is more likely to continue shaping domestic politics rather than continent-wide trends and pointed to polls showing growing support for the European Union. The panelist predicted that, despite lingering tensions between Eastern and Western Europe as to the ultimate direction of the EU project, Brexit will remain a British phenomenon.
- The Impact of Brexit on Sino-European Relations: Panelists agreed that Brexit is likely to exert a modest influence on Sino-European relations for the time being. One discussant noted that despite the United Kingdom’s status as the second largest economy in Europe, the European Union was and remains primarily a Franco-German initiative, with coordination between the two likely to deepen in response to the UK’s exit. The panelist said that, although Brexit will not unravel the EU project, changing dynamics between the UK and continental Europe could impact China’s relationship with the continent at large. The same discussant argued that the UK’s increased skepticism toward the EU’s relatively open trade policy with China could aggravate similar sentiments within EU member states. Another discussant concurred and noted the emergence of a bipolar paradigm within Europe which China will have to consider. The panelist, however, reiterated that Brexit is unlikely to dramatically shape Sino-European relations, as the relative influence of the UK within the EU was already minor.
- Trumpism and a Shifting International Order: The conversation addressed the question of the Trump administration’s reassessment of the international order and its ability to shape Sino-European relations. One discussant said that Donald Trump’s brand of populism remains unique when compared to European versions in two respects: it reflects a fusion of the economic populism of the left and the cultural populism of the right, and its ideals are represented and embodied in an individual rather than a party. As a result, the panelist said that it is difficult to predict the future of Trumpism in American politics. In the meantime, however, the discussant argued that both Europe and China have responded to this uncertainty by attempting to fill the void of American leadership, which has resulted in realigned relationships that bring with them new opportunities and challenges.
- The Future of China and Europe: The panel highlighted the significance and precariousness of this crucial moment in Sino-European relations. One discussant warned of both an underestimation within China of European uncertainty, as well as an overestimation within Europe of China’s geopolitical intentions, as China continues to emerge as a global power. The panelist said that economic integration wherein both parties act as responsible stakeholders in accordance with agreed upon rules will offer the greatest possibility for cooperation. However, a discussant noted that the current differences in attitudes across European capitals toward Chinese initiatives such as Belt and Road and 16 + 1 could pose problems for economic cooperation going forward. Another panelist said that China needs to be more proactive in assuaging fears within Western Europe that such efforts are attempts to divide the continent. Finally, another discussant noted it is imperative that engagement increase between both China and Europe while both regions exhibit growing assertiveness.
Thomas Carothers is senior vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Cheng Weidong is professor of European Union law and deputy director general of the Institute of European Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), as well as vice president of the Chinese Society for European Studies.
Erik Brattberg is director of the Europe Program and a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
Zhao Chen is research fellow and associate professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), where he also serves as head of the Institute of European Studies’ Department of European Diplomacy.
Paul Haenle is the director of the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy based at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Haenle’s research focuses on Chinese foreign policy and U.S.-China relations.