Reinhard Bütikofer, a Member of European Parliament for Germany’s Alliance 90/The Greens, recently sat down with TAI’s Jeffrey Gedmin and Damir Marusic for a wide-ranging conversation. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
TAI: Here in the United States, there’s a debate underway about decoupling with China, that we have to bring critical supply chains back home. How do you see that proposition? Is there an analogous debate in Europe and Germany?
Reinhard Bütikofer: Let me start by pointing out the obvious, which is that China started decoupling from the West before we invented the word “decoupling.” When you look at their trade and investment policies with regards to information and communications technology, for instance, there’s been decoupling all down the line. So we should not be shy or defensive about the conversation.
Secondly, I do think we are too dependent in more than just one strategic sector. PPE or pharmaceuticals are just one example. And we can’t trust Xi’s China. If anybody had forgotten that, we’ve learned it again during the COVID-19 crisis. Also: How can you trust a leadership that upholds international law only as long as they think they’re not powerful enough to overturn it? This is happening as we speak with regard to Hong Kong. If China respected international law, it would go by the terms of the Sino-British Joint Declaration from 1984. They’re just throwing it out the window and saying, “We don’t care.” They haven’t respected their UNCLOS signature either. They’re not really respecting WTO rules, like those on subsidies. All of that has been having an impact on Europe’s understanding of China, resulting in a much more critical assessment of China overall.
The old convergence theory is dead. I agree with the great analysis on China in your pages by Francis Fukuyama: Xi’s China is a totalitarian country with hegemonic ambitions. In March of last year, the European Commission called China a “systemic rival” in its strategic outlook. We’re still willing to partner with China where possible, but it would be folly to assume that you can be systemic rivals on Monday and then go back to partnering for the rest of the week as if you were not. Systemic rivalry implies that you can only cooperate on the basis of a firm stance that says, “We will not trade off the defense of our own interests and values for some short-term advantages.” So good-bye to the old naive “win-win” rhetoric that oftentimes allowed China to win twice.
Take the issue of 5G networks. We have to prevent Huawei or ZTE from becoming part of the 5G networks that we’re all building. This is of strategic relevance because 5G is going to be the nervous system of our industrial sectors and our societies for the future. How could you allow a company like Huawei that is under the spell of a totalitarian government to be involved in our sensitive infrastructure?
But when we discuss decoupling and its possible scope, we should also take a wider perspective. Some Americans might argue that the United States wants nothing to do with China and should decouple completely. But what about the rest of the world? If other countries, not as powerful as you, cannot afford decoupling in the same way, you end up not just decoupling from China but forcing other countries that cannot follow on this course to become a possible prey for China. How should decoupling work for countries like Singapore, Japan, and South Korea, which have China as their major trading partner? Or, for that matter, how would it work for a lot of countries around Europe?
Germany has a very strong economic relationship with China. We export more to China than the U.K., France, Italy, Spain, and The Netherlands combined. Only ideologues could argue: “Well, forget about the economy. China is evil. We won’t deal with them.” That is hardly a realistic point of view for us. Neither is it for weaker countries. The U.S. position has to reflect that. Your global responsibility goes beyond a narrowly defined national interest. Total decoupling is not a realistic option. I was very happy to read that Deputy National Secretary Advisor Pottinger clarified recently that total decoupling is not the goal of U.S. policy.
TAI: How do you see European discourse on China shifting in the wake of coronavirus?
RB: I see conflicting developments. In Italy, for instance, one recent poll indicated that a substantial number of Italians saw China and Russia as their best friends and were very angry about their erstwhile European allies, France and Germany. That may turn out to be just a momentary attitude, but they had a very good reason to be angry at the time. Because in March, Germany and France had put in place export bans for PPE when Italy was in urgent need for such supplies. China tried to exploit that mistake. But European solidarity has since kicked in again.
I also saw a poll indicating that almost as many Germans attributed importance to partnership with China as they did with the United States. I would take that with a grain of salt. President Trump is so terribly unpopular, and for good reasons, that he overshadows the image of the United States. It’s very hard for the general public to think of U.S. policy and not think of Trump. I don’t believe that this polling reflects a a generic stance vis-à-vis our American allies.
China tried hard with its face mask diplomacy to make political inroads in many European countries. I would argue that they overplayed their hand and bungled their efforts. They have effectively shot themselves in the foot. Look, when the Coronavirus crisis first broke, Europe provided China with a lot of direct help without much fanfare. We sent them PPE, and they told us, “Don’t talk about it too loudly, we don’t want to lose face.” We complied. But when the epicenter of the crisis moved to Europe, the Chinese government made a big fuss about helping us. This opportunistic exploitation of the crisis antagonized a lot of people. China tried to put pressure on German Ministry officials to publicly praise them for selling PPE. Their so-called “wolf warrior” diplomats, with their aggressive propaganda that tried to put the blame for the Corona crisis on the United States, on Italy, on everybody but themselves, did not endear China to anybody.
So I think China pushed extremely hard in an opportunistic way, and they have not won, but even wasted existing goodwill. That shows. In the UK House of Commons, for instance, members of Parliament created a new China Research Group under the leadership of the Chair on the Select Committee on Foreign Policy, Tom Tugendhat, a staunch conservative, and they are now pushing hard for the Johnson Administration to reverse its policy on 5G. I would dare to predict that Huawei will be out in the UK. Paris and Berlin have been less clear, but public opinion in these countries is also turning more critical. The German business community in particular started taking a realistically critical point of view early last year.
It’s interesting, also, what happened at the World Health Assembly (WHA). More countries than ever before actively supported observer status for Taiwan. 120 out of 194 member states, including 50 countries from Africa, supported a motion for an independent inquiry into the origin of the pandemic. The Trump Administration played its cards terribly badly. But China did not win. They have done a lot to lose Europe over these last three months.
TAI: You mentioned the impossibility of a decoupling that cedes the rest of the world to China. That seems to imply that we need leadership and a cohesive policy. Do you see the European Union as a whole stepping up? Are you hopeful for a coherent European response and consensus-building?
RB: I’m hopeful in the medium term, but that will require quite a few difficult debates. I don’t see the potential for the European Union to substitute for the leadership role that the United States would have played before Trump. When you look back at the last global health crisis, Ebola in Africa, it was at the time a given that the United States took a leadership role and coordinated. Nobody expected otherwise. In this present crisis, the U.S. fled from any leadership role. When the European Union called a Donors Conference to collect funding for medical research, the U.S. didn’t even show up, which was incredibly stupid, I must say. There’s a famous French saying, “This is worse than a crime, it’s a mistake.” This is one of those cases.
Clearly, the European Union shouldn’t strive for replacing the United States in its leadership role, nor could it, realistically. But the EU can team up with other countries in a multilateral fashion to promote shared goals internationally and to push back against Chinese bullying. And of course I would hope that the President that you’re going to elect next November would understand that if you are taking on a bully, it’s better to bring your friends along.
TAI: So if it’s President Biden, what advice do you give him on his first day of office, and if it’s a re-elected Donald J. Trump, what do you say to him?
RB: My advice to Vice President Biden is: by all means, get elected! Make sure that you win this campaign. Don’t allow President Trump to corner you over China. China will probably play a bigger role in this presidential campaign than any foreign policy issue has over many decades. I hope that the Biden campaign will be very strong on human rights—on the defense of the rights of Uighurs, for instance, or the democratic movement in Hong Kong—and that they will be strong when it comes to necessary reforms of the WTO and against China’s flouting of international trade rules. Once Vice President Biden becomes President Biden, once he really gets to the White House, he will have much more wise advice than I can provide.
If President Trump gets re-elected, the vast majority of Europeans would of course still prefer siding with a partially dysfunctional democracy, which at times looks more like a plutocracy, than with a perfect totalitarian system. But it would certainly be a terrible strain on all the Transatlanticists around Europe to have to put up with a President who has more in common with some of the world’s despicable strongmen.
TAI: You’ve mentioned Hong Kong twice. Can you tell us your assessment of the situation? How should America and Europe be working together to help the people of Hong Kong?
RB: Some of the initial statements from Europe reacting to the National People’s Congress usurpation , I must confess, were much weaker than I expected. The first statement by the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Policy described Europe’s wishes but didn’t respond to the obvious question: “What do you do about reality?” There was a much better statement by the Foreign Ministers of the UK, Canada, and Australia, and theirs is the line that the West should take. More recently, Europe step-by-step found a clearer and stronger voice.
As I see it, the imposition of a National Security Law is the end of the “high degree of autonomy” for Hong Kong. Beijing is not pretending otherwise anymore. They are thus breaking their obligation under a binding international Treaty, namely the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration. This is a tragedy for Hong Kong. How it all evolves still depends also on how we all react. I recall a tweet by Bill Bishop, who posed the question of whether under these circumstances, Hong Kong could continue to be the financial hub it has been, with its huge importance for mainland China. He cautioned that greed may be a reason why nothing much might change. He was alluding to corporate greed, of course. But it’s really a question for policymakers. Will some corporate interests prevail that say, “Okay, there goes Hong Kong’s freedom, but we will still do business as usual”? I strongly believe that we must show to Beijing that if they don’t accept international law, that comes with a price. And I would hope that Europe and the United States would take such an approach together. Of course, from a European point of view, some of the statements from Secretary Pompeo or the President himself are not helpful in fostering such a coalition.
TAI: Can you elaborate on the challenges ahead for the West, given that budgets have been run up so high in response to COVID? Even in a case as acute as Hong Kong, and especially on the broader issues around decoupling, do you see it as a challenge to tell businesses, “We have to prioritize values,” given how much economic pain we’ll all have taken by the end of this year?
RB: Let me answer the second half of your question first. My catchphrase would not be “decoupling.” My catchphrase would be “engagement”—not engagement with China, but engagement with a lot of other countries.
I’ll give you an example. At WHO, Xi Jinping boastfully announced that over two years, China would contribute $2 billion to help African countries with the health sector. De facto, the European Union has been providing $2.5 billion to the six western Balkan countries in this year alone for the same purpose. Unfortunately, we are not as good at propaganda as the Chinese Communist Party.
I just read a report about how terribly disruptive COVID-19 is proving to be in Latin American countries. Why can’t we focus on engaging with those countries and offering support? This is not just about the old West. There are countries out there that are budding democracies, and want to be part of the democratic camp, that are partly undermined by authoritarians. Why shouldn’t we use this opportunity to align democracies to counter the authoritarian wave?
I recall a panel discussion I attended a while ago, where a young female professor from South Africa was finally brought into the conversation, and she said, “Look, the old multilateralism didn’t have much to offer us. We were never at the table. If you want us to sustain the multilateral system, give us a seat at the table.” I think that was more than justified. Just living in a nostalgic world where the West is strong enough to dominate, that will not lead to anything positive. Aligning and engaging with other countries that we have not traditionally counted as the West, that’s the approach that I would advocate.
As regards the future of Europe, it’s still hard for us to really measure how deep the crisis is going to be. Certainly, the economic crisis is going to be much deeper than in 2008 and 2009. Back then, the negative growth rate in Germany was 4.5 percent, and this time it will probably be at least 7.5 percent, and Germany is still going strong in comparison with other European countries. If you look at all the public funding that has been put on the table to alleviate economic difficulties, more than 50 percent of all the money that European member states have coughed up has been German money, for German companies and German workers. You can see how skewed that is. Germany produces about 25 percent of the EU’s GDP. That means many other countries have not been able to do enough to shore up the economy, and it would be an illusion to assume that Germany can thrive if our neighbors go down the drain.
So the core question is, will we find a way of dealing with this crisis on the basis of European solidarity? In this regard, there clearly is new hope since President Macron and Chancellor Merkel have come up with their proposals for the European recovery fund, allowing the European Union to mutualize new debt and to help financing through grants the recovery in those countries that are hardest hit. The new budget proposal published by the Commission and broadly endorsed by the European Parliament follows in these footsteps and shows a realistic way forward. If we succeed with that, we can revive the European sense of belonging, even where people had found the European Union wanting. And there is a strong motivation for acting together. It is found in the quote from Benjamin Franklin to his colleagues at the Continental Congress, which applies to Europe today: “Gentlemen, we will have to hang together, or we will indeed all hang separately.” A growing number of people around the EU now recognize that this is the motto of our age. That makes me cautiously optimistic.
TAI: Speaking of hanging together and separately, many mainstream parties in Europe are having trouble maintaining support and credibility. Smaller parties, like your own Greens, are benefitting. Talk to us a little bit about the state of the party system, in Europe generally and Germany specifically.
RB: Every European country merits its own analysis, and there are rarely two countries for which the same analysis will hold true. What I can say in general terms, though, is this: the populist parties are not benefitting from this crisis—at least not so far. In Italy, the extreme right populist leader Salvini is losing popularity, while Prime Minister Conte, who had been compared to a sleeping pill before, is gaining lots of prestige. In Germany, the right-wing, extremist AfD party has lost about a third of its previous strength in recent polling, and is now ranging at or below 10 percent. In Austria, where the government is composed of a coalition of Conservatives and Greens, the far-right Freedom Party (FPO) is dwindling. I immediately know of no European country where populists are making great advances in this crisis. Of course, you can never sit back and rest on your laurels, and their strength is still a factor. Populists are still in power in Poland and Hungary, for instance. And their breaches of rule of law are a major concern for the European Union.
You asked about Germany in particular. Well, the most interesting fact has been the rise of the Chancellor’s party, the CDU/CSU. Before the crisis, their polling numbers were between 25 and 30 percent, now they’re at about 40 percent. This new found trust is mostly attributed to Chancellor Merkel’s crisis management and to the strong public role that some CDU/CSU governors play.
Our Greens have been waning a bit. We are now ranging between 16 and 18 percent. But we’re still in second place in most of the polls. Social Democrats have gotten good reviews for the part they play in government but no new support from the voters. The FDP liberals are hovering a little above the 5 percent electoral threshold. They look like a party that has lost its sense of direction. So in Germany, the political party system looks rather stable with CDU/CSU and Greens as the two mainstream parties.
TAI: You’re optimistic that the crisis is providing an opportunity for consolidation on the European level, and perhaps putting wind in the sails of the mainstream parties on the national level. Let me ask you a specific question: if Biden wins the presidency, do Europeans seize the opportunity to cooperate and make the most of it? Or will there be lingering doubt from the Trump era that would cloud this opportunity?
RB: After almost four years of Trump, most of Europe is pining for a new President in the White House. The ruptures that Trump has created or aggravated are not so deep that they could not be overcome. That might be somewhat different after eight years of Trump.
The prestige of the United States in Europe was pretty low at the end of George W. Bush’s tenure. President Obama became the darling of a wide majority of Europeans even before he became President, and the positive image of the United States skyrocketed driven by the appreciation of the President. A revival of positive Transatlantic vibes might not be quite as strong with President Biden, because he might not be as energetic a leader as Obama was, and Trump has trampled on so many European values and interests that it might be harder this time to resuscitate high expectations and high trust in the United States. Also, whoever the U.S. President will be, the old glory days when the Transatlantic relationship figured as the most important relationship on either side of the pond will not return. Europe is still trying to digest that lesson.
The focus of the U.S. global perspective has moved to East Asia. Not only did the pivot happen on President Obama’s watch, he also was the President who first indicated strongly that the United States would not be willing to carry as much of the international burden as it had over many decades. Messages to that effect were, for instance, clearly audible in President Obama’s speech at the Annapolis Naval Academy.
I expect President Biden would be tougher in what he asks of Europe than President Obama was. We Europeans will have to acknowledge that there’s no going back to the nostalgically overblown ideal of western commonality. Still, I expect that President Biden would change much for the better from a European point of view. He could do that by taking some steps signaling that he understands how core U.S. interests go along with many shared international concerns. He could re-join the Paris Accord, demonstrating to the world that the United States is willing to help lead a green transformation. That in itself would have a great impact around Europe. He could re-invest in multilateral institutions instead of leaving them to the Chinese. It’s an absurdity that presently there is so much wailing and clamoring over China’s growing influence in the United Nations system, while the only answer that President Trump seems to come up with is further retreat and abandonment, instead of pushing back against China’s overreach.
Significant steps like that would go a long way in re-establishing Transatlantic togetherness. Then, of course, there are our trade issues. The present administration is arguing that European steel and aluminum and European cars threaten the security of the United States. That’s just absurd. On the other hand, we Europeans have also learned some lessons regarding necessary reforms in order to uphold and modernize the multilateral trade order. Without the United States as a partner, and against China’s exploitative practices, there is no way of keeping the WTO afloat. But a new administration could count on European willingness for a cooperative approach in pursuing necessary reforms. That could even become a strong pillar of a Transatlantic revival.