Last week there were other things to worry about, of course, but while the world reeled from the horror of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, there were a couple of quiet developments in Europe that could have far-reaching implications for the continent’s foreign policy.
First, the Chinese cancelled this year’s EU-China summit, due to be held in Lyon yesterday, in response to Nicolas Sarkozy’s decision to meet the Dalai Lama in Poland on 6th December. While this may sound like an inconsequential diplomatic bunfight, one needs to go back several decades to the Sino-Soviet split to find a precedent for China making such a move; it usually restricts the diplomatic nuclear option to meetings involving junior officials. The annual EU-China summit, the main forum for high-level strategic discussion between Europe and China, has grown in importance over recent years, and this year the financial crisis gave a particular urgency to the talks.
Of course, had the rotating presidency of the EU been held by a country with a less volatile, more predictable head of state than Nicolas Sarkozy, the summit would probably have proceeded as normal. (France-China relations have deteriorated all year, reaching a new low in the run-up to the Olympics, when, following the debacle of the torch relay in Paris, the Chinese government ordered travel agencies not to sell tours to France and facilitated a boycott of Chinese branches of the French supermarket chain Carrefour.) Yet the fact that China feels able to treat the EU like this tells us something about the asymmetry of the EU-China relationship.