16+1 Summit: China, EU pledge to increase trade

Meanwhile, Greece has officially joined the group - making it now “17+1”

Photo: Reuters (L-R) Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.

China pledged to respect EU rules and standards as the summit with Central and Eastern European countries concluded on Friday, with Premier Li Keqiang praising Greece for officially joining the group - making it “17+1”. By joining in, Greece becomes the first new member of the group, which now comprises 12 EU Member States and five Balkan nations that are also slated to join the EU in the future.

Thus, speaking at the end of the summit in Dubrovnic, Croatia, the Chinese premier expressed hope that the cooperation would help deepen Beijing’s relationship with the 28-member bloc as he sees the growing platform as an important “supplement” to Beijing’s relationship with the EU

“We respect the EU’s laws and standards,” Li said. “We all need to increase trade and connect our economies.”

As part of this commitment, in a joint statement, the two sides announced they have lent support to numerous EU initiatives including the EU-China Comprehensive Investment Agreement, which Brussels and Beijing on Tuesday committed to complete before the end of 2020 - just in time for the next EU-China summit. According to the list, 40 other deals were signed between China and the partner countries, covering areas such as agricultural exports, e-commerce, finance and technology cooperation.

The statement also emphasised the need for a “level playing field” - a key demand by the 16+1 countries in their negotiations with China. In addition, it contained references to new principles that did not appear in last year’s statement, including the “three pillars of the United Nations” - peace and security, human rights and development.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who flew in from Athens on Friday morning, addressed the meeting’s plenary session and expressed strong hope that Greece would play a role in the new framework.

“I look forward to working with all of you in this framework of this initiative, in full respect of the rules and procedures of the European Union, to promote economic co-development through this very effective platform of cooperation with China,” Tsipras said.

“I think this is a very crucial moment for global and regional development. We have to leave behind the crisis, and we have to find a new foundation for our cooperation at a regional and global level,” the Greek leader continued in an apparent reference to the 2008 global financial crisis and the European debt crisis that followed. In his speech he also praised Cosco, a Chinese state-owned shipping and logistics company, for investing in the Greek port of Pireaus, and Athens’ cooperation with Beijing via its “Belt and Road Initiative”.

Since the launch of the 16+1 platform, several major EU economies, including France and Germany, have expressed concern that China’s influence on the region’s smaller countries would divide Europe. Last year, the European Union was again concerned after the 16+1 meeting was held in Sofia, Bulgaria, ahead of the EU-China summit. This year, however things seem to be different.

“I can see a real effort to make the China-Central and Eastern Europe cooperation complementary to the EU dialogue, reducing the existing overlaps,” Jakub Jakobowski, a researcher at the Centre for Eastern Studies in Poland, however stated.

He also said the joint statement showed a clear intention to funnel important issues – such as trade negotiations, connectivity, customs and others – through Brussels.

“China apparently backed away from the most controversial issues of financing, not presenting any new mechanisms and inviting EU financial institutions to the existing ones,” Jakobowski added.

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