Chinese President Xi Jinping is back on European soil just before the elections and at a time of great internal division over the future of the European Union. EPA-EFE/Michel Euler / POOL MAXPPP OUT


Xi Jinping visits Europe at a time of internal division


Xi Jinping has begun his first European visit in five years, one likely to be dominated by the war in Ukraine and growing economic tensions between Beijing and Brussels.

Xi’s return to European soil comes just before June’s European Parliament elections and at a time of great internal division over the European Union’s future.

The visit is also linked to his attempt to defend Beijing’s economic interests, following Brussels’s threats to impose tariffs on Chinese electric vehicles ver alleged unfair competition.

The EU has encouraged electric vehicles, as a key element in the green technological revolution proposed under von der Leyen’s Green Deal.

China has made electric vehicle investments in Serbia and Hungary, including a new electric battery factory in Hungary to compete directly with European and American industry.

Hungary is a key country in what China calls its New Silk Road, viewed as a gateway to the heart of Europe from the east.

Chinese investments go hand in hand with establishing banks to support these new financial agreements.

In April 2023, China Construction Bank – now the world’s second largest bank – opened a branch in Budapest.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said he was honoured by Xi’s visit, and hoped a free trade agreement last October between the two countries would come into force on July 1.

This agreement makes Brussels uncomfortable. Some say it gives economic oxygen to countries struggling to escape from control imposed by the European institutions.

On May 6, Xi Jinping meets with French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

Macron and von der Leyen will have a private meeting before talks with the Chinese leader.

For Brussels, China is a high-stakes card game. At the end of 2023, EU visited China in an attempt to adjust the trade balance between the two blocs.

With the United States in the midst of a trade war with China, the EU could seek to match its weight as a market against Beijing’s need for partners to buy its products.

According to Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lin Jian, Xi’s visit would “inject stability into the development of China-Europe relations and make new contributions to peace and stability in the world.”

Beijing is expected to use the internal European division to loosen the pressure the European Commission is attempting to apply to China.

China is also highly aware of the economic stresses produced by the Ukraine war and Washington’s pressure on individual countries.

Xi made significant choices to visit Serbia and Hungary, as well as France, but not Germany or Italy.

Despite EU attempts to centralise trade policy from the Berlaymont building, each country still conducts its own relations with China.

France is an examples as a European country with great interests in the African continent, which until recently has continued to exercise great control over its former colonies.

The Elysée does not want trouble in its backyard, its weakest flank. The revolutions instigated by Russia – with the support of China – are doing a lot of damage to Paris, and Macron needs political victories in order to justify his image as a continental leader.

“We don’t regulate enough, we don’t invest enough, we don’t protect enough,” Macron told The Economist in an interview published last week.