What EU’s Next Foreign Policy Head May Mean for Taiwan

What EU’s Next Foreign Policy Head May Mean for Taiwan

What EU’s Next Foreign Policy Head May Mean for Taiwan

The European Union (EU) has traditionally taken a very cautious approach in its dealings with Taiwanese governments, irrespective of their political hue. Almost all member states follow the EU itself in maintaining an explicit “One-China” policy and engagement with Taiwanese ministers has been kept to a minimum, usually confined to trade matters. Given the difficulty of getting access to governments, Taiwanese missions in Europe have customarily sought to develop ties with politicians instead, notably within the European Parliament. So the Taiwanese government will have taken heart from a number of developments over the course of this year, the more so given relentless Chinese efforts to squeeze still further the country’s diminishing diplomatic space. Yet, the potential pick for the EU’s next foreign policy head may portend rougher waters ahead for Taipei.

The position of the EU’s top diplomat is not an insignificant role. The High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy is in effect the EU Foreign Minister and therefore directly responsible for EU foreign policy. As one example of the growing importance of the position, both the last two people in it were directly involved in the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. Increasingly, on routine matters the member states are content to leave policy-making and policy statements to the HR. To take the example of China, in recent years, most European statements criticizing Chinese policy on human rights or in the S. China Sea have been issued by the HR. If member states make any statement, they usually do so only after the HR, that way they reduce the risk of China attacking them as they can say they are merely supporting EU policy. 

In January 2019, Federica Mogherini, the EU’s outgoing High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy told members of the European Parliament of the EU’s interest in developing closer relations with Taiwan. Then in May, several EU member states including Germany and the UK publicly voiced support for Taiwanese participation in the World Health Assembly in Geneva, and at the end of June in an unprecedented step, Foreign Minister Joseph Wu attended the 2019 Copenhagen Democracy Summit in his official capacity. Collectively, these actions together with other steps send a signal of discreet but growing European support for Taiwan to be, in the words of Mogherini, an active player in international affairs

But 2019 also sees the periodic five-yearly changeover of all the leading positions within the EU. Under this switch, Germany’s Ursula von der Leyen has already been approved as the next president of the European Commission and member states are negotiating among themselves as to who to nominate for the other key roles. Convention holds that no single member state should hold more than one key position at any one time but considerable horse-trading takes place between the member states, each of whom is anxious to ensure they have a voice within Brussels’ inner circle.  Yet, in the same way that in the United States all senior appointments in an administration must be approved by Congress, so in Europe all the appointments are subject to the approval of the European Parliament. Like Congress, the parliament can vote against nominees but not put forward alternatives. 

Few EU governments will be sorry to see Mogherini go. When she was appointed to the position, she was just 41 years old and her previous experience was limited to eight months as Italian foreign minister. She struggled to make an impac, former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi describing her performance as “close to zero on almost all the most important dossiers.” Nor was Mogherini the first in this situation. She took over from the UK’s Baroness Ashton who had the position by virtue of it being offered to the UK in the expectation that the country’s then influential and dynamic foreign secretary David Miliband would take it. When he declined, the British government struggled to find an alternative before settling on Ashton. 

While both Ashton and Mogherini deserve credit for their roles in the long and tortuous negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, after two such low-key appointments, European governments will now be anxious to see someone with more experience and impact occupy the position, especially given growing international uncertainty and tensions. 

As part of the process of new appointments, the Spanish government has nominated its acting foreign minister, 72-year-old Josep Borrell, to fill the seat. In contrast to Mogherini, Borrell is a seasoned politician with experience of handling several different ministries. He even once had ambitions of becoming prime minister. He has also spent time in the European Parliament. So, governments and European parliamentarians alike, anxious to see someone with more impact and political clout in the important foreign policy role, are likely to welcome his nomination. Although his nomination must still be approved by the European Parliament, the early indications are that this will be a formality.

Taiwan, however, will have good reason to be concerned, should his appointment be confirmed. Firstly, Spain has long been one of China’s most important allies within the EU. As one academic has explained: “No matter the party in power, Spanish authorities are […] among the most accommodating leaders in Europe with regard to Beijing’s policies on Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang.” 

There are many examples of this accommodating stance: the Dalai Lama has visited Spain five times but has not once been received at official level, in contrast to his visits to France, Germany and the UK; the Taipei representative office in Spain receives less support from the local authorities than its counterparts in other major European capitals; Spanish universities have refused to host events promoting Taiwanese studies; and while other EU missions in Taipei have changed their names in recent years to reflect the range of issues with which they deal, variously being termed Office (Austria, France, UK) or Institute (Germany), Spain’s is still officially no more than a chamber of commerce.

Added to Spain’s official line is Borrell’s own position. For he is from Catalonia, the northeastern region of Spain that defied the central government by voting in favor of independence in a 2017 referendum denounced by the government in Madrid as illegal. In their determination to prevent Catalonia from splitting from Spain, successive Spanish governments have adopted an almost instinctive opposition to separatist movements generally, presumably out of fear of a contagion effect. For example, unlike other EU members, Spain refuses to recognize Kosovo as a state, complicating the EU’s efforts at diplomacy in the Balkans. Consistent with this hard-line approach, Borrell himself is firmly opposed to Catalonian separatism and this opposition extends to anything he considers to be a separatist movement elsewhere. Chinese officials are therefore likely to find him very receptive to their arguments about Taiwanese “splittism” and he is not likely to be too concerned that the circumstances of Taiwan and Catalonia are very different.

The government in Taipei can take some comfort from the fact that whoever is appointed as the next EU high representative will have their hands full dealing with problems closer to home, in Iran, Syria, and Libya, not to mention Russia. Officially, too, the high representative, like other appointees, is meant to act in the collective interests of the EU as a whole, not those of his or her own individual member state. But, while encouraging, Mogherini’s words of support for Taiwan in January and Foreign Minister Wu’s reception in Copenhagen were one-off acts—symbolic, not substantive. They were not based on any formal mechanism or agreement, so there is no certainty that they will be repeated. And the majority of EU states place business opportunities at the forefront of their relationships with China, so they are unlikely to be concerned if the next high representative appears to take a more sympathetic position towards the country. 

The foreign ministry in Taipei would therefore be well advised to instruct its missions in European capitals to be urging the country’s friends and supporters in the European Parliament to grill Borrell hard on what his attitude towards Taiwan will be when he appears before them for his confirmation hearings. 

The main point: The limited progress that has taken place in EU-Taiwan relations in recent years risks being undone under the likely next EU foreign policy head. Taiwan should be working with its European friends now to try to mitigate the potential challenge.