Taiwan officially held its first Human Rights Consultation with the European Union (EU) in Taipei on March 22. At the joint press release of the Human Rights Consultation, the EU stated that “Taiwan is an established, pluralistic democracy that shares the universal values of human rights and rule of law with the EU, which was confirmed in these Consultations.” The EU congratulated “Taiwan’s far-reaching human rights agenda and encouraged Taiwan to actively communicate internationally about its human rights model.” At the meeting, Taiwanese and European officials discussed the abolition of capital punishment, the promotion of equal rights for LGBTQ communities, and rights of migrant workers. Delegates from the EU and Taiwan also met with civil society, and agreed to hold a second Human Rights Consultation next year in Brussels. The meeting on March 22 represents a promising start for strengthening Taiwan-EU relations as it seems to signal the EU’s political will to increase ties with Taiwan. As leaders in Taiwan and the EU consider ways to enhance their relationship, it is worth taking a broad view of Taiwan’s relations with Europe and look beyond to political dialogues, people-to-people exchanges, trade, and other potential for multilateral exchange.
While the EU engages with Taiwan in a number of different areas, trade is among the most prominent. According to 2017 data from the European Commission, trade flows between Taiwan and Europe are among the highest in the world. The EU is Taiwan’s fourth trade partner, just after the People’s Republic of China, the United States, and Japan. Vice versa, Taiwan is the EU’s 18-largest partner, and the seventh-largest in Asia. Considering the smaller size of Taiwan compared to the 28 member states that constitute the EU, the ranking is quite impressive. Trade has also been institutionalized, as in 2003 the European Economic and Trade Office (EETO) was created and since then 16 members of the EU have established representations in Taiwan. In turn, Taiwan has opened representative offices in 19 EU member countries. On a more international level, the EU and Taiwan work closely together on trade in the World Trade Organization.
Strengthening trade and investment relations with the EU is a smart move by Taiwan, since it allows Taiwan to diversify its own economy through imports and find a market for its exports. Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, France, Italy, Spain, and Belgium are the main seven trade partners that Taiwan has in the EU. However, deeper ties with the EU and its member states is also crucial for Taiwan considering the impending loss of the United Kingdom through “Brexit.” Brexit will be challenging for Taiwan since the UK is among the strongest voices that promote Taiwan ties within the EU. Therefore, it is in Taiwan’s best interest to cultivate deeper friendship with the other European countries, and vice versa, considering the shared democratic values, belief in human rights, open trade, and transparency.
In October 2015, the European Trade Commission announced the willingness to consider a Bilateral Investment Agreement (BIA) with Taiwan. However, after almost three years from the announcement, the BIA has still not been reached. Part of the reason could be that European companies view the Chinese market as providing more possibilities than the Taiwanese one, and Europeans may think they need to choose one or the other. Nevertheless, Taiwan should continue to pursue the BIA with the EU due to the promise of creating greater trade flows through that mechanism.
Diplomatic and political cooperation
Taiwan’s one official diplomatic partner in Europe—the Holy See—belie the wide scope of Taiwan-Europe engagement far beyond formal partnerships. Nonetheless, for now, the Taiwan-Holy See relationship seems more resilient than many observers had expected despite rumors that the Vatican is inching closer to establishing formal relations with the PRC, which necessarily mean that it would have to end its diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Beyond the Holy See, Taiwan has a number of dialogues with the EU and other European countries. The European Parliament Taiwan Friendship Group was founded in 1991 and it is a major venue of cooperation. It is notable since many countries have joined this friendship group and made it one of the largest within the European Parliament. Other specific bilateral groups include the Germany-Taiwan Parliamentary Friendship Group, the France-Taiwan Parliamentary Friendship Group, and the Belgium-Taiwan Parliamentary Friendship Group. Therefore, there are abundant informal institutional linkages beyond official country-to-country diplomatic relations.
Among the main bodies that form the EU, the European Parliament is the strongest advocate for continuing relations between Brussels and Taipei. Within the EU Parliament, the aforementioned European Parliament Taiwan Friendship Group has supported Taiwan’s participation in international organizations, including in the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Moreover, in 2011 the EU Parliament Taiwan Friendship Group was a key force that allowed Taiwan to become part of the visa-free travel within the Schengen Area. This allows Taiwan nationals to travel across 26 European countries without the need for a visa to enter each one of them. However, the EU officially recognizes the “One-China” Policy, and therefore keeps much of the relationship with Taiwan on an informal basis.
The EU Parliament has pledged its “strong support for Taiwan’s democratic values” and “strong opposition to the use of force in the Taiwan strait.” There are many dialogues between the EU and Taiwan, and cooperation especially in trade. On an institutional level Taiwan and the EU cooperate on many issues that range from education, to climate change, cultural exchanges, science and research. A delegation of EU and Taiwan members have also discussed the possibility of “cooperating in developing industries of the future” and also focus on AI, green energy, and establishing a circular economy. However, more needs to be done to strengthen cooperation between the EU and Taiwan, especially as a number of European member states are focusing more on China and starting to view their Taiwan relations as a subset of their China relations. This is further augmented by the fact that some European countries look favorably to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Taiwan needs to keep an eye on possible competition over Europe steaming from China’s BRI, which is a topic we will explore in a future article.
Taiwan and EU’s relation is further strengthened by membership in the Global Coalition against ISIS, in which Taiwan provides “humanitarian aid to victims of ISIL [ISIS, Daesh] attacks.” Since 2003, Taiwan is also a part of the Major non-NATO allies (MNNA), which stipulates that “[a]ccording to the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, MNNA status makes Taiwan eligible for stockpiling of U.S. defense articles; purchase of depleted uranium anti-tank rounds; with a reciprocity agreement, exemption from indirect costs, administrative charges, and billeting costs for training; and use of any allocated foreign military financing programs (FMFP) funding for commercial leasing of defense articles.” Taiwan works with the US and its European partners through this mechanism.
While there is much trade and informal institutional engagement between Taiwan and Europe, both sides would continue to benefit by developing greater awareness of each other. It feels like events and news about Taiwan are currently rarely reported in the media of the EU member states, but they should be more widely reported. It is necessary to promote a better understanding of Taiwan’s issues, the democratic values it shares with the EU, its open economy which is beneficial for the EU, in order to promote further cooperation not only on an economic, but also political, and cultural level. This understanding of Taiwan should be among officials in the EU, but also cultivated among the citizens of each EU member state. Though Taiwan already maintains its official diplomatic partnership with the Holy See in Europe, the EU and Taiwan enjoy abundant trade, and there are strong institutional ties, but there is potential for an even closer relationship.
The main point: There is an abundance of dialogues between the EU and Taiwan, especially in trade cooperation. However, both sides could do more to strengthen cooperation with one another through international security collaboration, news media coverage, and increasing the number of formal diplomatic relationships.