TRAILBLAZERS: Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso at the 14th China-EU Summit in Beijing on February 14 (MA ZHANCHENG)
This year will see two meetings of the China-EU Summit. The first meeting, originally scheduled to be held in Beijing last October, had to be postponed because the European leaders were in the midst of crisis talks about the euro zone. A year on, the crisis is still ongoing. Rumors of a Greek departure from the euro sit beside strong protestations from the leader of Europe's strongest and largest economy, Germany, which says that as long as Greece shows it is serious about tackling its entrenched problems, then the 17 members of the euro zone can stick together and survive.
At the postponed summit, eventually held in Beijing on February 14, President Herman Van Rompuy of the European Council and President Jose Manuel Barroso of the European Commission met with Premier Wen Jiabao. The communiqué which both sides jointly issued at the end of the meeting stated that the relationship was "a comprehensive strategic partnership which has grown in strength and depth." The statement continued: "Both sides agreed to take a positive view of each other's development and render relevant support. China reaffirmed its continued support for the EU integration process. The EU side noted the sustained, steady and rapid growth of the Chinese economy as well as its important contribution to global growth and reaffirmed its support for China's peaceful development and respect for its sovereignty and territorial integrity."
The 15th China-EU Summit to be held in Brussels in late September will also mark the 10th anniversary of Wen's attendance, and perhaps, with his likely retirement from his government posts at the National People's Congress next spring, the last time he will attend this meeting representing the Chinese Government. For a decade, Wen has been the key figure in the leadership who has nurtured and developed the relationship between the two sides.
He has done so during a period of dramatic change both within China and within the EU. The Chinese economy in 2002 was a quarter of the size that it is today. The country had only just entered the World Trade Organization (WTO). There were all sorts of issues about how compliance with the complicated commitments and accords under WTO entry conditions might impact on China. That all seems a very long time in the past now. Over the last decade, China has risen past Italy, France, Germany, the UK and Japan, to become the world's second largest economy after the United States. In that time, too, the EU has become its largest trading partner. Their shared economic interests have never been greater.
This has been also a period of great change for Europe. In 2002, the EU had only 15 members. In 2004, a further 10 new members joined, predominantly from Eastern Europe, with a further two acceding in 2007. When Wen first held his meetings with the EU on becoming Chinese premier in 2003, there was no integrated European diplomatic service, and no formal president of the European Council. This was all introduced under the Lisbon Treaty, which was agreed to after painstaking negotiations in 2009. The past decade, therefore, has been a period of change for both China and the EU, it has been a period of change.
The international economic environment has only accentuated this. Few would have suspected in 2002 that within a mere five years there would be a global downturn, and that North American and European economies would bear the brunt of this. Since 2008, EU economies have had patchy growth, with long periods of recession. Some of the key member states, from Spain to Italy, have been beset by public debt and deficit problems. Managing the risk from Greece defaulting has taken up huge amounts of time and political effort since 2009. This challenge is ongoing.