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RubricheTaiwan SpotlightTaiwan, the EU, 2024. What to expect?

Taiwan, the EU, 2024. What to expect?

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For the European Union, Taiwan represents an important technological partner and given its alignment with the US, Member states of the EU keep a close eye on the Taiwan Strait. But what are the perspectives for a closer cooperation that would not be just economic but political as well? The answer is likely no, as the EU navigates relations with Taiwan on a subtle line often based on rhetoric.

As the calendar turned to 2024, the world witnessed a massive political event that set the stage for international dynamics in the year ahead: Taiwan held its presidential elections and William Lai, the candidate of the Progressive Democratic Party, emerged victorious. Lai, previously known as an outspoken supporter of Taiwan’s formal independence as its own Country and not as ‘’Republic of China’’, has moderated his views on the relations with the other side of the Taiwan Strait and has sworn not to change the delicate status-quo of Taipei. Whereas Lai has shown to be cautious when it comes to relations with China, he is much more adamant about the willingness of Taiwan to engage even more economically with the European Union. About a week before the elections, he said that ‘’ Taiwan is most happy to deepen [exchanges] on values, economic and trade ties, and climate change with European countries’’, adding that although Europe and Taiwan are far geographically they share common values and interests. He is not the only one to hope for more ties, as the Foreign Affairs Minister Joseph Wu also invited the European Countries to ‘’do more’’ in terms of economic and political ties instead of ‘’just’’ focusing on semiconductor production in the Continent provided either by the Taiwanese know-how or by production plants.

Wu is certainly right on one thing: especially in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine (which highlighted how reliant is the European Union on external actors when it comes to key resources) the European Union has hastened the process of securing critical resources that are otherwise exclusively imported from China. Semiconductors are twice as relevant, not only because the EU lacks major production plants of such critical components but also because Taiwan is the main producers of microchips and is under a growing pressure by Beijing. 

In December 2023 the European Parliament approved two key motions in support of Taiwan: the first one called for a greater economic and political engagement with Taipei while it included in the yearly relation on the EU-China relations condemation of the ‘’distorted use’’ of the UN Resolution 2578, the one that acknowledges the existence of only the People’s Republic of China and considers Taiwan part of it, resulting in the exclusion of people with a Taiwanese passport from International Organizations. In the statement by the EU-Taiwan Friendship group in the European Parliament that followed the Taiwanese elections the Members of the European Parliament confirm that the Parliament is strongly supporting a step-up and many European countries have started to deepen the economic relations with Taiwan autonomously, by allowing the opening of new Diplomatic offices (like the one that recently opened in Milan) to boost trade and cultural exchanges. Is there hope for a proper trade deal at a European level too then? Not really. 

Although the Parliament is very much in favour of sturdier ties with Taiwan, the resolutions that have been passed so far are non-binding. The official position of the European Union, however, is different: a formal trade deal between the two parties is not necessary according to EU officials because the overall conditions are stable enough and Taiwan and European Countries can manage just fine the way things are at the moment. This position has also the benefit of not directly touching the topic and therefore to avoid as much as possible any possible backlash from China. 

The Commission now is not interested in compromising the relations with China and every word about Taiwan is weighted carefully. The press release by the European External Action Service issued after the Presidential Elections was incredibly short and remarked how the EU still respects the One China Policy and in the week before the election the so-called ‘’EU Bubble’’ was silent regarding the incoming electoral process. 

Last but not least, in the Bubble people point out that the MEPs that would take a strong stance in favour of Taiwan would be the first ‘’victims’’ of a Chinese backlash on trade: a drop in trade towards China would result in a loss of popularity towards anyone that would cause such a situation.

Therefore the relations on a European level with Taiwan are at a dead point: on one hand both Taiwan and politicians elected in the Parliament push consistently to boost relations but in the end the position of the European Union cannot stray away too much from what has been the norm so far, which is a pragmatic position that keeps the relationship alive but without causing a diplomatic escalation with Beijing. However, things might change in the following months: the European elections are incoming and according to forecasts the Parliament could be leaning towards centre-right wing parties, which are more aligned with Taipei than with Beijing. 

The diplomatic pressure by Beijing is on the 12 Countries (after Nauru announced a switch recognition to China) that still maintain diplomatic relations with the Republic of China is likely to increase said Fabrizio Bozzato, Senior Research Fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation when asked about the topic. Pozzato also added that by effecting Nauru’s switch of diplomatic allegiance, Beijing has sent a strong message across the Taiwan Strait as well as across the Pacific. With such pressure from China, Lai will be more motivated than ever to pursue the goal of a trade deal with Europe, but it will not be easy. Not just for the various reasons that were listed in this piece but also because Lai does not have the majority in the Parliament and that the Kuomintang and the Taiwan’s People Party have the possibility to stop anything that goes against their approach on foreign policy.

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