Charles Michel: “The EU cannot be the collateral victim of the struggle between the US and China”

The coincidence of the visit to China by the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, with the biggest protests in recent decades raised doubts about the timing and format of the trip. Little affected by criticism often covered by the anonymity of the sources, he has no doubts. The visit, says Michel, was “essential” and had to take place now. 

“For those of us who believe in a more sovereign, autonomous and active EU on the international scene, at the height of its economic weight, there can be no vacuum. The EU must defend its values ​​and interests and that is what I have done”, defends the former Belgian prime minister. With enviable energy, after Beijing, Michel sat down to talk with La Vanguardia and other European media about this and other current issues, from the energy crisis to the confrontation with the United States over aid to their companies (“I would have liked another behavior”, shoots) or his relationship with Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission.

What has your trip to China brought to Europe?

Diplomacy is a long-term job. This visit came a few weeks after the 20th congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which coincided with a long strategic debate at the last European Council on China. The visit has allowed me to convey to you the position of the Twenty-seven, based on drawing lessons from the war and avoiding excessive dependencies. It is also important to counter Russian lies and explain the EU position. There have been small steps, but of great value. For example, President Xi’s repetition of his condemnation of the nuclear threat. Or the claim that it is false for China to supply weapons to Russia, which shows that its position is not one of blind support. Another result is that we are going to resume the dialogue on human rights. And regarding the protests and the response of the authorities, it has been time to defend the right of assembly. On the preparations for the trip, we work with the Sherpas of the Heads of State and Government, the European External Action Service and obviously the European Commission.

Can the EU align itself on China with the United States?

The EU cannot be the collateral victim of the struggle between China and the US. There are points of convergence on the evolution of China, which is now more assertive and offensive, there is no naivety about it. But the EU has its own interests and its own industrial reality. Resigning ourselves to others deciding for us how to interact with China, we are not going to defend our interests and values. The way it is done is rather by speaking, as I have done for three hours face to face with President Xi Jinping, one hour with the Prime Minister and another with the President of the People’s Assembly. That gives you a better understanding of China’s rationale for understanding its priorities and sensitivities. Now I am going to talk to the member states to talk about how we can be more forceful in defending our interests. 

European autonomy

“The temptation to withdraw into ourselves seems absurd to me”

What do you say to the critics of your trip?

I find it very curious to hear that there are doubts about the relevance of going to China now. The EU is a power of 445 million citizens, with a very powerful single market and, like it or not, China is a major economic partner and a key geopolitical player with important ties to Russia. The temptation to withdraw into ourselves seems absurd to me. Those comments from each other affect me little, they could have let me know what they think and they haven’t, they only do it anonymously.

The inflation reduction law passed by the United States, with its massive subsidies to American companies for the energy transition, is considered a “problem” for European industries. How should the EU respond to US protectionism?Russia’s war against Ukraine has solidified ties between Europe and the US During the first months we saw unprecedented coordination with its allies in the EU, the G-7 and NATO. In contrast, the impact of the war, the situation in the US is not the same as in Europe. They are exporters of energy resources, Europe is not. This is a fact, we should not be ashamed to say it. The reality is that Europe – the citizens, big and small companies – pays an extremely high bill for the energy crisis. Inflation means impoverishment, and there is also an imminent risk of recession. At the same time, energy-exporting countries such as the United States or Norway are earning more income. This is the situation we are facing. We share the objective of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), but we want there to be cooperation and coordination of our economic policies. Among friends you should be able to talk. We will see what this opening announced by the US in the last few hours translates into for that dialogue.

Impact of war

“Europe is paying a very high bill for the energy crisis, the US is not”

Considering that the IRA was adopted in this context of such close transatlantic cooperation, do you feel betrayed?

I don’t want to use that word, but of course I would have preferred another behavior. At the beginning of the war, we were pleasantly surprised at how important it was for the US to coordinate with us, and we felt enormous confidence, for example, when it came to sharing information from the secret services. But from the economic point of view we are not naive, the US interest is its priority. The EU means well, we believe in the free market and globalisation, but perhaps we have forgotten that for it to work there must be reciprocity.