Sefkovic calls for equitable access to the EU market in China to “increase confidence” after COVID-19

European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič has renewed calls for European firms to gain fair market access in China after the global public health crisis has been reigned in, in an effort to restore trust and confidence.

Speaking at a EURACTIV event on Friday (May 8), Šefčovič recalled his meeting last year with China’s President Xi at Beijing’s Belt and Road Summit, in which he pressed the leader on the issue of gaining market access to China for EU firms.

“Our request for improving the relationship was a very simple one,” Šefčovič said. “What I asked for was for China to treat the European companies in China the same way that we treat Chinese companies in Europe.”

“That’s reciprocity. This is what we like to achieve. It’s very important from the point of view of values and how we do business and increase mutual trust and confidence.”

The EU has repeatedly called for greater market access for its businesses in China.

During last year’s meeting between the leaders of China, Germany, France and the European Commission in Paris, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the EU expects to develop reciprocity in trade relations with China as part of the Being’s Belt and Road Initiative, a development plan involving infrastructure and investments stretching across more than 80 countries.

Moreover, as far back as 2016, the EU had adopted a new strategy on China, which laid out plans to rebalance the trade deficit with the country, in a bid to promote “reciprocity, a level playing field and fair competition across all areas of co-operation.”

Trade deficit

Recently released Eurostat figures suggest that during the 2009-2019 period, the EU had a trade in goods deficit with China varying between €104 billion and €164 billion, with the 2019 figure standing at €164 billion.

In this vein, the Commission’s vice-president for inter-institutional relations noted how the EU could look to make the most out of the current crisis in order to reposition itself on the world scale, in the midst of ever-the-more bitter poles of geopolitical power between the US and China.

“We have to turn this crisis into an opportunity,” Šefčovič said, adding that President Ursula von der Leyen’s forthcoming ‘Marshall Plan for Europe’, outlined in a rehashed seven-year EU budget plan, should bring “massive investment into making sure that it modernises and transforms the European economy and the way Europeans live, behave and position ourselves on the global scale.”

Erosion of trust

Moreover, in the context of the current public health crisis, some in Brussels believe trust between the EU and China has been eroded because of the way China handled the pandemic.

Bloomberg has recently cited the Chair of the European Parliament’s delegation to China, Reinhard Buetikofer, as saying that “over these months China has lost Europe,” due to a series of concerns emanating from how the country has sought to manage the flow of information related the crisis.

This has recently manifested in Europe by way of a series of scandals related to Chinese influence on EU public communication.

At the end of April, the EU’s diplomatic chief Josep Borrell confirmed that Chinese officials had “expressed their concerns” over the leak of a draft Commission publication on disinformation which had levelled allegations at China for their role in mismanaging the coronavirus.

Role of SMEs

Speaking more broadly on the bloc’s recovery plans on Friday, Šefčovič noted how the EU could leverage its network of innovative small and medium-sized enterprises as a means to reposition itself more competitively on the global stage, by ensuring that such businesses are able to make use of digital tools by default, in addition to simplifying regulatory frameworks.

On this point in particular, other panellists on Friday were in broad agreement with the vice-president.

“So we have to invest smarter in high-risk companies and support the SMEs. The innovative ones are the ones that survive,” S&D MEP Eva Kaili said, while Emma Navarro, vice-president of the European Investment Bank, noted how various funding schemes put forth by her bank would help banks to provide financing to high-risk innovative SMEs.

Speaking on the role of SMEs to stimulate the global economy amid the coronavirus outbreak, Abraham Liu, chief representative to the EU institutions of the Chinese tech giant Huawei, also highlighted the importance of such firms.

“During the SARS crisis in China, bigs names such as Alibaba or Tencent began to work hard, with booming business since then,” he said.

“Now, we see a lot of SMEs with creative ideas in China and elsewhere in the world that could stimulate the economy and use technology to find solutions to the crisis.”

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