Far-Right Shift in France and E.U. Brings Uncertainty for China Policy

Far-right parties across Europe made major gains in this weekend’s European Parliament elections. The gains were most pronounced in one of the E.U.’s most influential members, France, where Jordan Bardella and Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN) party came in first place with 31.4 percent, over twice as much as the coalition led by President Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance (RE) party with 14.6 percent. Immediately after the results emerged, Macron dissolved the French parliament and called for new legislative elections, a historic and risky attempt to regain legitimacy. 

A far-right movement at the height of its power in France and in Europe will have a significant impact on E.U. politics, and it may have a similarly disruptive impact on the E.U.’s current policies towards China. Catherine De Beaurepaire and Rhyannon Bartlett-Imadegawa from Nikkei Asia described how this rightward swing will likely push the E.U. towards trade issues and away from values when it comes to China:

The greatest problem for the EU is the widening divide among its 27 countries on how to deal with China. Some centrist parties want to pull China in line with global trade and human rights rules, while some right-wing parties are anti-Beijing simply on ideological grounds and others, such as Hungary’s far-right leader Viktor Orban, are actively courting China.

[…] What analysts seem to agree on, though, is that with the far-right’s hold over Europe, the bloc’s relationship with China will center more on trade protectionism than upholding human rights and democratic values.

“For China policy, the results pave the way for the consensus forged during the last mandate, approaching China primarily as a challenge, to continue,” said Grzegorz Stec, head of the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Brussels. But he added that with the right wing’s rise, the “EU’s China agenda is likely to focus more on economic risks compared to values-related concerns.” [Source]

Macron’s dissolution of the French parliament also had the indirect effect of scrapping all of the national legislative projects currently in progress. These include draft laws on countering fast fashion (targeting Shein) and moving the country towards electric vehicles, both of which would impact Chinese companies. Should the upcoming parliamentary elections result in a plurality or majority for the far right, which tends to be eco-sceptic, it is not clear whether these sorts of legislative projects would resume. With its victory in last weekend’s elections, the French far-right is also poised to disrupt policy on the E.U. level. In April, Corentin Lesueur highlighted in Le Monde the way in which the RN has consistently gone against the current to back China in votes at the European Parliament:

Behind the RN MEPs’ explanations of their votes lies a more vehement anti-Atlanticism than that espoused by Le Pen on the domestic scene. Because they have refused any blindness about the United States’ actions, they have taken the liberty of defending regimes that the three-time presidential candidate could not publicly support with as much ease.

[…] China has enjoyed a similar kind of consideration from the RN. Over five years and dozens of votes, Bardella and his colleagues have only voted in favor of one resolution against it, on January 17. It concerned Beijing’s growing influence over the EU’s “critical infrastructure.” They never lent their support to texts expressing concern, for example, about forced labor and the situation of the Uyghurs (abstention on December 17, 2020); violations of fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong (votes in opposition on January 20, 2022); or the abduction of Tibetan children and “forced assimilation practices” (abstention on December 14, 2023). [Source]

These contrarian political orientations may be strengthened by the gains of far-right parties across Europe. Shortly before the E.U. elections, Kara Němečková and Ivana Karásková published a report for the Prague-based organization Association for International Affairs, “From the Fringes to the Forefront: How Extreme Parties in the European Parliament Can Shape EU-China Relations.” Here are some of the report’s main takeaways:

The analysis of voting behaviours from 2019 to March 2024 within the European Parliament’s [far-right] Identity and Democracy (ID) and Left groups reveals a consistent pattern of opposition to resolutions addressing foreign interference and EU-China relations, demonstrating a shared scepticism towards mainstream EU stances on China. 

The motivations behind these voting patterns vary among national parties within each group, reflecting deep divisions and diverse perspectives that influence EU parliamentary decisions on foreign policy and international relations. 

Far-right parties within the ID group, despite shared characteristics like euroscepticism and nationalism, exhibit varied opinions on economic policies and security measures, influencing decentralised voting behaviours on China-related issues.

[…] The anticipated gains for both far-right and far-left wings in the European Parliament are likely to favour more China-friendly votes, potentially softening rhetoric and reducing support for more assertive stances against China. [Source]

In Politico’s China Watcher newsletter, Stuart Lau shared Chinese reactions to the far-right victories across Europe

A few senior Chinese scholars and advisors to the government do not seem convinced the far-right trend would be a welcome in Beijing. “The rise of the right wing means that the EU will speed up with its de-risking strategy and reduce dependency on China,” said Zhao Ke, head of Russia and Europe at the Central Party School of the Communist Party. “With the EU adopting the geopolitical lens to look at its relationship with the world, this creates challenges to China-EU relations.”

In the same interview, published on Chinese web media The Paper, another senior scholar echoed that view. “The EU could take an even more conservative view on the economic policy with China,” said Ding Chun, the lead Europe scholar at Fudan University in Shanghai.

Another China-EU scholar at Fudan, Yan Shaohua, takes a more nuanced view, saying that while the far-right groups will promote a “narrow-minded protectionist policy in trade,” there’s also “a lack of unity on the China agenda” among the different far-right parties. “The right-wing populist parties are also relatively pragmatic, and not so ideological,” Yan said. [Source]

Given Macron’s thrashing in the E.U. elections, many officials believe that his hand will be weakened in discussions about who will hold the E.U.’s top leadership positions over the next cycle. He previously expressed doubts about the current European Commission President and China hawk, Ursula von der Leyen, but may now end up backing her for the position. Finbarr Bermingham at the South China Morning Post noted that despite the E.U. elections resulting in a big rightward shift, von der Leyen still remains in charge:

[T]he key takeaway for those watching China policy was that European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) remained the bloc’s largest parliamentary group.

The EPP won 189 seats – an increase of seven on five years earlier – in the world’s second-largest democratic process after India’s mammoth general election. Second was the Socialist and Democratic Group (S&D), which slipped to 135 seats from 154 in 2019.

The right-wing European Conservatives and Reformists won 72 seats, up from 62 five years earlier.

[…] “The biggest winners of this election are the two families of the radical right,” said Pawel Zerka at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“Collectively, including non-affiliated parties like AfD and [Hungary’s] Fidesz, they seem close to surpassing the one-third seat threshold, enabling them to obstruct legislation.” [Source]

Finbarr Bermingham also posted a thread on X listing the election results of some of the most critical voices on China in the European Parliament:

On the international front, the European Commission, led by von der Leyen, has tried to present a strong, united E.U. stance towards rivals such as China and the U.S., and a clearer, more unified industrial strategy to remain competitive. However, nationalist far-right parties advocate for a looser, more fragmented Europe that critics say will complicate these goals. This also plays out at the national level, particularly in France. Mujtaba Rahman, Managing Director for Europe of the Eurasia Group, wrote a thread explaining that Macron’s decision to dissolve France’s parliament in the midst of a far-right wave is dangerous for the E.U.’s foreign policy goals, which are funded by budgets that at some point will require ratification by national parliaments. Should the far right win the legislative elections in France, it would likely withhold support for von der Leyen’s policy plans regarding Ukraine, and possibly China.

Meanwhile, as Philip Blenkinsop reported for Reuters, on Wednesday the E.U. announced that it would impose tariffs on imported Chinese electric vehicles (EVs) to protect Europe’s automobile industry:

Less than a month after Washington quadrupled duties quadrupled duties for Chinese EVs to 100%, Brussels said it would set additional tariffs of 17.4% for BYD, 20% for Geely, and 38.1% for SAIC, on top of the existing 10%, over what it said were excessive subsidies.

[…] The EU provisional duties are set to apply by July 4, with the anti-subsidy investigation set to continue until Nov. 2, when definitive duties, typically for five years, could apply.

The Commission said it would apply rates of 21% for companies deemed to have cooperated with the investigation and of 38.1% for those it said had not.

[…] “The decision marks a big change in EU trade policy because, although the EU has used trade defence measures regularly in recent years, including against China, it has not previously done so for such an important industry. And Europe has been reluctant to engage in the kind of protectionism that the US has deployed since Donald Trump’s presidency,” he said. [Source]

France has the highest share of Chinese-made EV battery sales in Europe, at close to 30 percent, according to The Wall Street Journal. While encouraging Chinese investments in France, Macron has also been one of the biggest proponents of the E.U.’s plans to apply tariffs on Chinese EVs, justifying this position by invoking the need for reciprocity. The far-right RN, for its part, favors a protectionist economic agenda that would slow the growth of the Chinese EV industry in France, but that would also include de-integrating from the E.U.’s fiscal and economic architecture. Chatham House explained how this attitude will likely be amplified across Europe: “The key [economic] policy decision facing the Union will be how far to go down a unilateral route in pursuit of greater economic security and how far to prioritize rules-based multilateral solutions. A stronger voice for far right parties may push it more in the first direction.”

Another China-related development at the European Parliament this month is the retirement of German MEP Reinhard Buetikofer, a prominent voice on human rights in China who has been denounced by Chinese state media as a “black hand” behind protests in Hong Kong and formally sanctioned by Beijing for his opposition to its abuses in Xinjiang. SCMP’s Finbarr Bermingham reported last week:

“Seen by many as a polariser, he was actually a consensus builder for a realistic China policy and, as such, appreciated by many in the EU institutions,” said Gunnar Wiegand, until last year the EU’s top diplomat on Asia.

Buetikofer leaves under sanction from Beijing, capping an unusual journey from card-carrying communist in the 1970s when he was captivated by a rebellious and romantic image of Mao Zedong “swimming in the Yangtze, writing poems for his first wife”.

[…] Like him or loathe him – and he appears to trigger both emotions in equal measure – Buetikofer will leave a huge gap in a parliament not known for China literacy.

In June 2022, for instance, the German killed language in a resolution that would have accused China of committing genocide in Xinjiang. The measure materialised from a small group of lawmakers and could have had drastic consequences for EU-China ties.

“I thought we should not go down that rabbit hole … that would deflect the conversation from discussing the facts on the ground to a legal dispute that the general public doesn’t really understand,” Buetikofer said.

The language they settled on – “crimes against humanity” – was no trivial matter, he added. [Source]


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