New EU Parliament Report Reflects Changing EU Messaging on Taiwan

New EU Parliament Report Reflects Changing EU Messaging on Taiwan

New EU Parliament Report Reflects Changing EU Messaging on Taiwan

On April 4, 2022, the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs adopted a new report on the European Union’s approach to security challenges in the Indo-Pacific. While it must be noted that the report has not yet been approved by a full European Parliament vote, it remains notable for its more direct, forthright language focused on Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). [1] Describing the island democracy as “a key partner and democratic ally,” the report details a range of potential avenues for expanding EU-Taiwan cooperation, while also criticizing the PRC for its “increasingly assertive and expansionist behaviour.” For an institution that was once reluctant to even mention Taiwan by name, this language represents a remarkable shift in messaging. Given recent developments in the EU-China relationship—as well as mounting global fears of the threats posed by authoritarianism—this new report could potentially signal broader EU support for Taiwan. [2]  

The Report

In recent years, the Indo-Pacific has taken on growing significance for the EU. Describing the region as “the world’s economic and strategic centre of gravity,” the union has increasingly worked to strengthen its ties with a wide range of Indo-Pacific states. Thus far, these efforts have substantially expanded the relationship between the two regions, particularly on the economic front. Indeed, as a 2021 EU factsheet noted, “the EU is already the top investor, the leading development cooperation partner, and one of the biggest trading partners in the Indo-Pacific region.” Seeking to build on these ties and affirm their commitment to the region, the EU and its constituent bodies have released several strategic documents on the subject in recent years. Perhaps the most substantial of these reports is the “EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific,” a comprehensive overview of the EU’s ties with the region released in April 2021. While the recent report has much in common with this 2021 predecessor, it takes a more direct and assertive approach, particularly in its description of China and Taiwan.

At its core, the Committee report is very much a product of its time. Released against the backdrop of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, it devotes a substantial portion of its length to the crisis, condemning Moscow’s needless aggression and encouraging global solidarity in resisting it. This language is certainly understandable, given the heavy economic, military, and humanitarian burdens that Putin’s war has placed on the EU. Yet, the report does not limit its focus to Russia. Instead, it seeks to place the invasion within the context of a broader EU Indo-Pacific strategy, drawing parallels between the threats faced by the two regions. 

While the EU’s approach to China has become increasingly assertive in recent years, the new report contains even stronger language. Unlike past publications, which described the PRC as a “rival” or “challenge,” the April document explicitly links Chinese behavior with the deterioration of global security. Specifically, it argues that China—through its declaration of a “no limits” partnership with Russia and subsequent refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion—has effectively enabled Moscow’s aggression. Furthermore, the report accuses Beijing of contributing to “geopolitical tensions and competition, reflected by an increase in military spending, military build-up, and a more aggressive rhetoric, thereby threatening the rules-based international order.” In addition to these allegations, the document criticizes the PRC for a host of other transgressions, including (but not limited to):

  • Conducting aggressive, expansionist policies toward Hong Kong, Taiwan, and India;
  • Maintaining an illegal presence in the South China Sea, despite rulings by the Permanent Court of Arbitration prohibiting it;
  • Engaging in widespread disinformation campaigns and disrupting democratic processes;
  • Pursuing “aggressive commercial practices based on diplomatic coercion and belligerent debt diplomacy policies;”
  • Refusing to engage in multilateral discussions on a variety of critical issues, including nuclear non-proliferation.

While many of these concerns had been addressed in past EU reports (see here and here), rarely have they been presented in such a bold, confrontational manner, particularly in a single document. Taken together, they help to illustrate the EU’s mounting unease regarding China’s foreign and domestic policies, a trend that has only accelerated in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While this deterioration of EU-China relations should certainly concern leaders in Beijing, it could present opportunities for Taiwan to make in-roads in Europe. As the report makes clear, there is a growing appetite for cooperation with Taiwan among EU states.

Though past EU documents have spoken positively of Taiwan, the April report takes a significant step forward in promoting EU-Taiwan collaboration. Rather than merely criticizing the PRC for its aggressive tactics in the Taiwan Strait, it explicitly calls for substantive engagement with Taiwan. Specifically, it encourages EU states to:

[…] enhance the existing partnership with Taiwan so as to promote common values such as democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and good governance in the Indo-Pacific region, work together on topics such as secure sea lines of communication and open and safe airspace, and engage in joint efforts to tackle climate change.

Additionally, the report suggests that EU agencies should cooperate more fully with their Taiwanese counterparts, while also encouraging closer ties between European and Taiwanese think tanks and NGOs. Notably, the report also reiterates the EU’s support for Taiwan’s participation in international multilateral institutions, including the WHO (this statement was previously made in a 2021 report on EU-Taiwan ties). Finally, it commends Taiwan for its willingness to participate in international sanctions against Russia, suggesting that cooperation between the EU, the United States, and Taiwan could prove increasingly productive in the future. 

Much like the report’s accusations against China, many of these suggestions have been made in past EU documents. However, they take on increased salience when considered in the context of the report as a whole. In a document rife with fundamental questions about the EU’s relations with China, Taiwan is presented as a valuable future partner. In a broader context, the report is indicative of larger shifts in EU messaging toward China and Taiwan.

Context and Implications

Taken on its own, the Parliament report might not appear to be especially noteworthy, especially given the sheer volume of reports released by the EU on a weekly basis. Yet, when considered in the context of recent developments in the EU-China relationship, it takes on added significance. As mentioned previously, the relationship between the EU and the PRC has evolved substantially over the past decade. A mere six years ago, the EU viewed China in a largely positive light. In its report “Elements for a New EU Strategy on China,” released in June 2016, the EU Parliament portrayed the PRC as a valuable trade partner, a source of critical foreign direct investment, and a potential collaborator on a variety of global issues. [3] While it mentioned China’s assertive foreign policy and concerning approach to human rights, it nevertheless envisioned an EU-China relationship that could provide “reciprocal benefit in both political and economic terms.” As events of the following years would demonstrate, this period of bonhomie was not to last.

In March 2019, following several years of growing Chinese assertiveness, the EU Commission released an updated strategic paper detailing its approach to China. Dubbed “EU-China – A Strategic Outlook,” this new document offered a more realistic, pragmatic assessment of the PRC and its role in the international system. [4] Famously, it described China as an “economic competitor” and “systemic rival,” with which deft statesmanship in negotiation would be required. This apprehension regarding Chinese foreign and domestic policy only grew in subsequent years, as Beijing’s aggressive diplomacy during the COVID-19 pandemic effectively alienated many European partners and turned public opinion against China. As a result, states across Europe have grown increasingly comfortable standing up to China, while official documents (such as the aforementioned EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific) have become progressively more critical of Chinese policy. 

For Taiwan, this shift in messaging could have significant implications. Already, several EU states—including Lithuania, the Czech Republic, and Slovenia, among others—have expressed interest in expanding their ties with Taiwan. And while the EU once discussed Taiwan as little more than a footnote in its negotiations with China (literally, in the case of the 2019 China strategy), it now discusses the island democracy in its own right. As the April report makes clear, EU leaders increasingly view the PRC as a threat to international stability, even explicitly linking Beijing to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. If this deterioration of EU-China relations continues—as recent events suggest it will—Taiwan could certainly stand to benefit. As the new report makes clear, the EU and Taiwan have much in common. All that remains is for EU leaders to turn messaging into action.

The main point: A recent EU Parliament report was notable for its direct approach in both identifying the challenges that China poses to the international security order, as well as offering clear statements of support for closer collaboration with Taiwan. In the context of broader trends in EU-China relations, it could represent a significant shift in messaging.

[1] The report was adopted by the Committee on Foreign Affairs by a vote of 56-8, with 12 abstentions. It is currently scheduled for a full EU Parliament debate on June 6, though it could be debated as soon as May 18.

[2] By definition, the report is an “own-initiative report,” meaning that it is a policy recommendation directly proposed by a parliamentary committee for debate by the entirety of Parliament. If the Parliament approves the report, it would then be sent to the European Commission, which would subsequently be compelled to inform Parliament whether or not it will be preparing legislation on the issue. While such reports do not carry legal weight on their own, they are nevertheless seen as reflecting the general feeling of Parliament. Accordingly, they are widely viewed as “significant precursor[s] to legislative procedures being initiated.” 

[3] The 2016 EU-China Strategy was submitted by the European Commission to Parliament, which passed it 570-61, with 40 abstentions. While subsequent papers have provided updated language on China, the 2016 report remains the authoritative document on EU-China relations.

[4] This paper was released jointly by the European Commission and the European External Action Service (EEAS) and was intended to reflect growing EU concern regarding Chinese behavior. As the paper notes, the 2016 EU-China strategy continues to be the primary guiding document for the EU’s approach to China.