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Book Review: Europe, China and the Limits of Normative Power by Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy

By Fraser Cameron

1 July 2019

Book Review: Europe, China and the Limits of Normative Power by Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy, Edward Elgar, 2019, ISBN 978-1-78897-581-0

There are few more important questions for the European Union (EU) than how to deal with a rapidly rising China, now described by EU leaders as a ‘systemic rival’ offering different views on democracy, human rights, and the rule of law as well as global governance.

It is thus timely that Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy reviews the limits of European influence in her new book based on her PhD thesis for the Free University of Brussels. As an official in the European Parliament, Ferenczy is uniquely well placed to observe and analyse EU efforts to promote its normative power with China. The European legislature has been among the most vocal critics of the authoritarian trends in China under President Xi Jinping.

Ferenczy interviewed many EU and Chinese officials for the book which combines rigorous academic research with policy experience. She guides the reader through constructivist and realist approaches to EU foreign policy warning that there is no magic bullet in dealing with China. The EU would be in a stronger position if it was less fragmented, had common views on the importance of normative values and had not suffered a series of major crises in recent years. Yet the EU is still one of the few actors seeking to advance democracy and human rights, aims that one can no longer apply to the Trump administration.

Europe is not facing inevitable decline but must get its act together in dealing with China and other major powers. The recent strategy paper of the EU was welcomed by the European Council that agreed a number of measures to defend itself against Chinese predatory behaviour in the trade and investment fields. The buzz word is reciprocity. If China will not open its market to European companies then it cannot expect that its companies will have free rein in Europe. Recent decisions to screen Chinese companies wishing to invest in the EU and impose deadlines for the long-running negotiations on an investment agreement are indications of the EU’s tougher approach. Whether this new line will be maintained by all member states, some of whom are susceptible to Chinese promises, as witness the 17+1 arrangement, remains to be seen.

At the heart of the differences between the EU and China is the role of the state and the leading role of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).  The CCP supports key industrial sectors with massive subsidies which resulted in the EU refusing to grant China its wish for market economy status. The subsidies issue may also derail efforts to reform the WTO.

The CCP also regards itself as above the law. There is rule by law in China but not rule of law. Lawyers trying to defend human rights activists have been jailed while the anti-corruption campaign has been hijacked for political purposes. Academics as well as the foreign media face restrictions on their activities.

Despite fundamental differences over concepts of human rights – individual v societal – there are signs that China is ready to accept EU norms in a range of regulatory issues as it wishes to maintain access to the EU’s single market. It may be that these legal frameworks provide a training ground for a new cadre of Chinese lawyers who understand the importance of the international dimension.

Ferenczy also turns her attention to two key areas of EU-China cooperation: climate change and Africa. She considers that China is now a serious partner for the EU in promoting the Paris agreements (again in the absence of Trump’s America) and identifies internal as well as external pressures moving China towards leadership in renewable energy.

On Africa, she notes that China is a competitor for natural resources and political influence, But there are also potential areas for cooperation in the fields of development and security. China was a significant contributor to the EU-led anti-piracy operation off the coast of Somalia.

This very readable book should attract a broad readership as it will be essential reading for academics and experts working on EU-China relations as well as the general public seeking a better understanding of the interaction between two of the foremost global actors in international relations.

Fraser Cameron is Director of the EU-Asia Centre