Being the European Union trade commissioner must sometimes be a thankless job, as Karel De Gucht is finding out. He has been fighting long and hard to establish a level playing field with China.
The issues are well known. For European companies, they include the protection of intellectual property rights, ending the dumping of Chinese goods on European markets and coming clean about the generous state subsidies given to Chinese firms when they bid for contracts or snap up European companies.
Mr. De Gucht is no pushover when it comes to dealing with China. But because of the euro crisis, E.U. countries are increasingly going it alone with China and ignoring the E.U. Commission. Big and small member states are vying with each other to win business in China and to attract Chinese investments in their own countries.
It’s as if all the downsides of doing business with China have been forgotten.
Here in Germany, the small and midsize companies known as the Mittelstand, which in the past complained about the difficulties of doing business in China, now play down problems like red tape and corruption. Given the economic climate, they prefer to lie low rather than speak out.
Some of the big German companies, including the carmakers, do speak out from time to time. They are weighty enough, and they have the ear of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was in China last week, a visit I discuss in this week’s Letter from Europe.
Ms. Merkel used to be much more confrontational with China, calling often for more respect of human rights and press freedoms. She wants a strong economy and jobs to prevail in Germany over the next 12 months before the next federal elections. China can oblige.
Such attitudes do not help Mr. De Gucht, as national interests are prevailing in ways that prevent Europe from having a strong and united position in how to deal with China. Beijing can only be smiling.