Brussels bears a bad memory of the last summit which brought together the so-called 16 + 1 on European soil. It was a year ago, in Latvia. From that meeting came a project that now analyze the competition authorities with magnifying glass. The result of his contacts with Beijing, Hungary — one of the EU's most fractious partners — awarded two Chinese state-owned companies the construction of a fast railway stretch between Budapest and Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. He did so without publicity and without meeting the basic rules of public bidding in Europe.
The case illustrates well the threat posed to Community institutions by this partnership between China and Eastern European states, including 11 from the EU. The link, which dates back to 2001, functions as a kind of backdoor by which the Xi Jinping regime circumvents Brussels to gain influence and contracts in a much-needed investment territory. It is, in the words of the Spokesman of the European Commission, a forum that brings together "China and its friends".
On paper, everything is friendly. The EU even sends an observer to ensure that nothing that is agreed in Budapest is turned back to the European institutions. But the practice is more complex. "Trade, investment and infrastructure projects can only give full results within the EU framework, with the support of all the Member States," a spokesperson for the Community diplomatic service was on Monday.
Beyond the detriment to the external relationship between the EU and an inconvenient partner like China, that framework also poses a clear challenge to internal cohesion. The 16 + 1 format brings together Beijing with some of the states that are most facing Brussels for issues such as refugee reception. China exploits this discontent to scale up positions and the new Europe countries — the one that emerged after the great enlargement to the East — show their old partners that they are not unconditional. By the way, the Chinese regime is attracted to the Balkan states, forced to comply with certain rules — in the case of EU candidates — for receiving Community funds, but increasingly skeptical of the lack of accession prospects coming from Brussels.
America's isolation under Donald Trump's mandate propels Europe to closer ties with China. But the last bilateral summit, in which Beijing refused to sign a climate pact already closed with the EU in protest at the lack of progress in other chapters, revealed the precariousness of that alliance. The parties are now prepared for another potential disencounter. Europe is studying to create a mechanism that assesses in advance whether foreign investment meets community standards. To materialize, that decision would limit the rain of millions of Chinese in the old continent.