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European People’s Party: Pragmatism with a confrontational turn

Updated: 6 days ago



Overview


The European People’s Party (EPP) is the largest European political family and has enjoyed a majority of the seats in the European Parliament since the 1999 elections. Similarly, all Presidents of the European Commission since 2004 have been members of the EPP. Many of the founding fathers of the European Economic Union (Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer and Alcide de Gasperi, among others) adhered to the Christian democratic and liberal-conservative ideals which are still today central for the EPP. This has led some observers to comment that the EU is a by-product of Christian democracy (Kaiser, 2007).


As befits a large political family, the national political parties within the EPP do not always agree on key policies. Some members of the EPP, like the Romanian PNL, espouse a very socially conservative ideology, virtually indistinguishable from the hard right (Zmuškova, 2021), whereas others are relatively liberal (Fine Gael, 2020). Some tend to embrace governments’ intervention in the economy, whereas others are unabashedly libertarian (Vie Jensen, 2024). In any case, the EPP parties all broadly subscribe to centre-right, conservative ideals which suffuse their policies.


The President of the European Commission Ursula Von der Leyen, an EPP member herself, described the EPP as standing for “pragmatic solutions, not ideological ones” (Von der Leyen, 2024), which points at the party’s traditionally technocratic and policy-based approach to governing the EU. Indeed, the policies advocated by the EPP and its member parties are often adopted by the EU institutions and the domestic governments, given the dominance of the conservative family in both European and national politics (Bardi et al., 2020). In this regard, the EU’s China policy is no exception, as this article will outline.


China


The EPP manifesto for the 2024 European elections mentions China frequently, as many as ten times. This speaks to the centrality which the Asian giant has in the conservative family’s view of international relations. Out of these ten mentions of China, two are made in the context of the EU’s foreign policy as it seeks to assert its place in the world and to speak “with one voice.” Another five mentions refer to Chinese meteoric economic growth and the need for the EU to revitalise its economy (including by addressing the trade deficit with China), and one mention is made in relation to Beijing’s digital and technological agenda. Lastly, two China mentions are in the context of the EU’s need to shield its strategic infrastructure and companies from Chinese takeovers. The manifesto has quite an adversarial approach towards China: in three of these ten mentions, the EPP highlights that Beijing is a competitor, and in one of them, it frames EU-China relations as one of “systemic competition” (EPP Manifesto, 2024).


However, the EPP insists on the need to “de-risk, not decouple” relations with China (EPP Manifesto, 2024). The term de-risking has become a buzzword in the Brussels bubble in recent years – and it has been officially used by the European Council (2023) and the Parliament (2023) in their strategies towards China. The term de-risking aims to succinctly encapsulate the subtleties of this strategy, focusing on “mitigating risks and limiting strategic dependencies” which put the EU in a vulnerable position, all the while “remaining open to targeted cooperation and economic ties” when possible (MERICS, 2024). 


As the dominant political European party, the EPP has usually steered clear from sweeping and strongly ideological statements and policies, instead opting for a middle-of-the-road, business-as-usual approach to the geopolitical issues of the day – an approach not too dissimilar from that of the other main European party, the Socialists and Democrats (Barroso Gómez, 2024). The EPP labels its policy towards China as “principled and pragmatic,” showcasing its aim to marry ideals and policies (Nawrotkiewicz, 2024).


In practice, this means that the EPP is unlikely to behave in a radical manner towards China, even in the face of human rights violations. This sets them apart from parties like the Greens/EFA, which adopt a more combative, “values-based policy approach” (Lehrer, 2021) anchored in the respect for human rights (Gómez-Hernández, 2024). At the same time, the EPP has grown increasingly outspoken on Chinese malpractices in areas such as trade and the environment. This toughened stance is in line with the ever-increasing assertiveness of the EU institutions in its rhetoric on China (Demertzis, 2023), and sets the EPP apart from the political families to its right, which are deemed friendlier to China (Hildebrandt, 2023). 


In 2021, the EPP published a strategy paper outlining its China policy. This paper can be seen as the foundational document informing the current EPP policy towards China, which can be summarised in three main pillars, the three Cs: cooperation, competition, and confront.


This three-pronged approach mirrors the EU Commission’s own stance towards Beijing (which should not come as a surprise, given the ascendancy of the EPP in all European institutions). Indeed, under Von der Leyen, the European Commission famously described China simultaneously as a “partner for cooperation, an economic competitor and a systemic rival.” (European External Action Service, 2019), an approach which still underpins EU policy towards China (Šebok, 2021). The three labels used by the EU seem to flow almost seamlessly from the EPP’s own three Cs, with the EU’s “partner” label corresponding with the EPP’s “cooperation” element, “competitor” mirroring the EPP’s “competition” pillar, and “systemic rival” referring to the “confront” element. This attests to the broad alignment between the conservative family and the European Commission when it comes to China.



Cooperation


Climate and the environment are usually described as areas in which the EU and China can establish avenues for relatively successful and effective cooperation (Pongratz, 2023). Indeed, in a position paper adopted by its parliamentary assembly in 2020, the EPP singles out climate action as one area in which EU-Chinese relations can cooperate. The conservatives also highlight the potential of multilateral cooperation in international fora in areas of global governance in which China and the EU harbour common interests, such as health (especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic), connectivity (epitomised by the EU-China Connectivity Platform of 2015), and diplomacy (mentioning the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action signed with Iran in 2015 but ultimately scrapped by the Trump administration).


The EPP seems to espouse a realist view of its relationship with China, emphasising that cooperation is to be welcomed “where such cooperation is beneficial” for the EU (EPP, 2020). Notably, the EPP excludes China from the list of “value partners” in the Asian continent, such as Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, signalling that any cooperation with China is borne out of interests and not common values.


Competition


In its 2020 position paper, the EU puts the focus on protecting the EU market from the distortive effects of Chinese state-owned enterprises and what it views as unfair trade practices, and mentions the Belt and Road Initiative and the Made in China 2025 strategy as potentially disruptive projects by Beijing against which the EU has to ramp up its competitiveness. Here, the EPP alludes to its free-market and free-trade principles (with a social tilt), while supporting the European Commission’s trade defence measures against Chinese dumping strategies and heavy subsidies. In this context, the EPP has been a vocal supporter of the Comprehensive Act on Investment (CAI), an unprecedented investment deal between Brussels and Beijing whose ratification was frozen by the European Parliament in 2021 (Liboreiro, 2021).


Its 2021 strategy paper recommended that the Commission enacted a Level Playing Field Instrument to ensure that European small and medium companies can compete against Chinese companies. Similarly, the EPP believes that the EU should develop instruments to ensure the “competitive neutrality” of Chinese state-owned and state-subsidised enterprises in European soil. In essence, the EPP centres the Competition part of its three-pronged strategy around trade and the economy.


Confrontation


The EPP’s Confrontation pillar can be considered to mirror the Strategic Rivalry element of the EU’s policy towards China. The EPP singles out China and the EU’s different values and political systems as the reason why they are fated to be systemic rivals as well as competitors and partners. China’s challenge to liberal democracies is mentioned in the party’s 2020 position paper as a reason for the EU to confront Beijing’s assertiveness in the global arena. 


However, the 2021 strategy paper of the EPP has a more confrontational tone than the 2020 position paper, signalling not only a turn in the EPP’s discourse, but a souring of Beijing-Brussels relations. The 2021 document denounces Chinese interference against EU diplomatic efforts and in European universities. Among its recommendations, the 2021 strategy paper includes putting stronger measures in place to counter Chinese disinformation in social media – more dramatically, Ursula Von der Leyen acknowledged the possibility of banning TikTok. She spoke in her capacity as EPP leader in a debate on 29 April, not as President of the Commission, which suggests that her statement follows the conservative party’s line (Chini, 2024). 


Conclusion


When it comes to voting, the EPP group shows remarkable unity despite it being, by a distance, the largest delegation in the European Parliament. Some of the key legislative milestones of the European chamber passed in the 2019-2024 mandate have been supported unanimously or near-unanimously by the EPP: this includes the CHIPS Act and the agreement on Critical Raw Materials, both passed in 2023, which aim to reduce the EU’s overdependence on Chinese semiconductors and rare earth metals (How They vote). The EPP delegation in the European Parliament was also unanimous in a 2023 resolution expressly voicing its concern over Russian and Chinese interference in democratic processes in the Old Continent, and recommending banning TikTok at all levels of domestic and EU government. The conservatives’ cohesiveness was also in full display in two resolutions condemning Chinese encroachment over Taiwan and its tightening grip over Hong Kong. 


This unity over China policy is all the more surprising given the syncretic nature of the EPP during the past decades, when it eyed a “strength in numbers” strategy by which maximising its MEPs was preferred over strict ideological alignment (King, 2019). The EPP’s unity stands in stark contrast with the parties to its right, which are bitterly divided over China (Němečková & Karásková, 2024).


This is why a potential alliance between the EPP and the hard-right groups (a not-so-distant prospect, floated by Von der Leyen herself) could throw a wrench to the EU’s China strategy. An understanding with the hard right political families (the European Conservatives & Reformists and the Identity & Democracy), which contain domestic parties with a very friendly view of China (Němečková & Karásková, 2024), would undermine the relatively solid EU-wide cohesiveness which it has so far enjoyed in Parliament, in the Commission and in the EU Council. How the EPP responds to this dilemma (whether to continue the centrist coalition with Socialists and Liberals, or whether to form a right-wing coalition) will define the foreseeable future of the EU (Hublet et al., 2023).


Besides, the next five-year term is likely to witness important shifts in the relationship with China, especially in the context of a fragmented world order and an emboldened China. The potential heightening of tensions in the Taiwan Strait, the consolidation of the Chinese regime over Hong Kong, Beijing’s cosiness with Moscow, and China’s opposition to the EU’s stance over myriad issues (including, first and foremost, Gaza) will put the pragmatic, middle-of-the-road approach of the EPP to the test.



This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of European Guanxi, its leadership, members, partners, or stakeholders, nor of those of its editors or staff. They have been formulated by the author in their full capacity, and shall not be used for any other purposes other than those they are intended for. European Guanxi assumes no liability or responsibility deriving from the improper use of the contents of this report. Any false facts, errors, and controversial opinions contained in the articles are proper and exclusive of the authors. European Guanxi or its staff and collaborators cannot be held responsible or legally liable for the use of any and all information contained in this document.



ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Juan N. García-Nieto is a research assistant at ESADEGeo, a think-tank based in Barcelona, Spain. He has a Masters’ degree in International Politics from SOAS University, London. He is a columnist at Young Voices Europe and the Editor-in-Chief of European Guanxi. You can find him on Twitter at @JNepognt.


This article was edited by René Neumann and Douglas B. Anderson.



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