Viviane Reding: “Not walls, but bridges”

NONE of the European tourists visiting China will miss a trip to the Great Wall. The Great Wall is probably the most emblematic landmark in China. But it would be a mistake to associate Chinese-European relationships with a wall, whatever the archeological significance of the monument. In reality, the European Union is China’s biggest trading partner, while China is the EU’s second-largest trading partner. Landmark Chinese bridges, like those of the ancient city of Wuzhen, Zhejiang province, better symbolize the current state of relationships between China, the EU and other trading partners.

The fact that the World Internet Conference from Nov 7 to 9, 2018 is held precisely in Wuzhen is therefore not merely fortuitous. Information and communication technology (ICT) is one of the most dynamic market sectors in China’s economic boom and the sector is likely the best example of China’s integration in the world economy.

Internet, trade and bridges are bridge-builders. And Wuzhen is the perfect symbol of bridges. The conference could not take place in a more emblematic space!

In its resolution adopted on last Sept 12, the European Parliament (of which I was a member) called for a cooperative approach and a constructive attitude to exploit the great potential of EU-China trade and called on the European Commission for an intensified cooperation dialogue with China: For the mutual benefit of all companies, in China and in Europe. In times when other continents discuss about walls, Europe intends to build bridges.

At the same time, the parliament welcomed the commitments made by President Xi Jinping to further open up the Chinese market to foreign investors and improve the investment environment, to complete the revision of the negative list on foreign investment and lift restrictions for European companies, and to strengthen the protection of intellectual property rights and level the playing field by making the Chinese market more transparent and better regulated. On the other hand, the parliament welcomed the setting-up of the EU-China Connectivity Platform, which promotes cooperation in transport infrastructure across the Eurasian continent and noted with satisfaction that several infrastructure projects were already identified.

These few statements taken from the resolution reflect the eagerness of Europe to deepen its trade relations with China. But this endeavor will, in my view, only be successful, if we realize that building a sustainable relationship is like building bridges.

When a stone arch bridge is being built, the structure remains completely unstable until the two spans meet in the middle and the arch is closed. Similarly, robust relations between Europe and China require to be based on structured principles and not only on potential economic gains.

The first of these principles are commonly agreed standards and rules. A systematic dialogue of the European Commission with China and other WTO partners must be initiated on regulatory requirements relating to the digitalization of our economies and its multifaceted impact on: trade, production chains, cross-border digital services, 3D printing, payments, taxes, property rights issues, the provision and protection of audiovisual services, the media and people-to-people contacts. The WTO code on public procurements contains also common rules, such as non-discrimination, that could foster EU-China trade.

Multilateral standards and rules result from an inclusive process which fosters international cohesion and promote legal certainty. In the rare cases where the EU opted for a unilateral approach, such as in the case of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the system foresees that the rules in force in other countries can be declared adequate by the EU and that, even in the absence of an adequacy decision, companies established in other jurisdictions can process personal data from EU citizens, following a certification procedure. Inclusiveness is key for the EU. We Europeans do not want to exclude anyone. In addition, the GDPR is becoming worldwide standard so that, in practice, adequacy could eventually become the general rule.

The example of GDPR illustrates the need to speed up multilateral discussions, in particular in the digital area. Artificial intelligence, for example, promises benefits, but brings also about risks. Before each country starts designing its own rules, let us see if we cannot come to common principles and approaches, and that before abuses hamper an otherwise promising technological development.

The second principle is that China-EU relations should not be limited to trade. Human beings are more than consumers and producers. Human beings have higher aspirations. Those can be promoted by cultural and educational initiatives, like the 2018 EU-China Tourism Year (ECTY) which allowed, besides its economic significance, to share our cultural heritage and develop a better understanding between European and Chinese peoples. When I was member of the European Commission, I launched the “Erasmus Mundus Programme”, a worldwide cooperation and mobility program in the field of higher education, promoting dialogue and understanding between young talents. Since 2005, many Chinese students seized the opportunity of scholarships to study in European universities. A perfect example of how openness leads to mutual benefits. We should continue on that road.

The third principle on which China-EU cooperation should be based is mutual respect for each other’s diversity. Fourteen years ago, I negotiated on behalf of the European Union, the UNESCO convention that would become the Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions. The EU promotes globally what it practices internally: “unity in diversity”. Also in this field, an exchange of best practices could be beneficial, Europe’s unification being the result of nations seeking common ground while reserving differences.

The same holds true for the China-EU relations. We may have different views, but different views should not stop us from cooperating and communicating. On the contrary, our differences are an incentive to increase the fora and occasions where we can discuss and interact to promote mutual understanding. In this regard, I welcome that the organizers of the fifth World Internet Conference have invited high-level European decision makers to participate in the discussions. I am delighted to be one of them, helping to building bridges and to tear down walls. Relevant organizations like ChinaEU Association should also be encouraged to take an active and engaged role in enhancing dialogues and exchanges on digital matters between Europe and China.


Viviane Reding is a member of the Luxembourgish Parliament, Former Vice President of European Commission. 


A version of this article appears on ChinaWatch website and China Daily website.

ChinaEU is a business-led International Association aimed at intensifying joint research, business cooperation and mutual investments in Internet, Telecom and Hi-tech between China and Europe. ChinaEU provides a platform for constructive dialogue among industry leaders and top-level representatives of European Institutions and the Chinese Government. 

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