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International relations

European 'naivete' on China is over, Macron says

Italy's overtures toward Beijing raise alarm bells in EU

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks to reporters in Brussels on March 22 after a meeting of European leaders.   © Reuters

BRUSSELS/BEIJING -- French President Emmanuel Macron declared an end to the European Union's naive relations with China on Friday, saying the bloc needs a unified strategy instead of individual national policies.

"The time of European naivete is over," Macron told reporters in Brussels after a joint meeting of European leaders.

Behind the EU's renewed caution is the tilt toward Chinese money by core member Italy, which was expected to sign on to Beijing's Belt and Road infrastructure-building initiative during Chinese President Xi Jinping's European tour this week -- making it the first Group of Seven member to do so.

Macron, Merkel and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker will hold a summit with Xi in Paris on Tuesday -- a rare meeting with the EU's top three leaders together.

"We are not just partners, but also competitors," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a news conference on Friday.

"We want a relationship based on reciprocity," Merkel said. "If one side has access, then the other side should, too."

The EU forged positive economic relations over the years with China, viewing the country as a major market. But it has grown wary as Chinese enterprises proceed with acquisitions in Europe while European companies are frequently denied by Beijing and forced to transfer technology in China.

Leaders at the European Council meeting late this week discussed a new approach to China amid growing concern that the world's second-largest economy could drive a wedge into the bloc. Their conclusions, released shortly after the summit, fell short of criticizing the country by name, but there were numerous signs that the bloc is concerned by Beijing's advances.

A key focus of the document was "reciprocity" in public procurement -- essentially a call to restrict companies from countries where EU businesses face barriers to infrastructure development from bidding on public European projects.

This, of course, is in response to China, an EU diplomatic source said.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, with Italian President Sergio Mattarella in Rome on March 22. Italy shocked the European Union with its plans to join China's Belt and Road Initiative.   © AP

Italy's decision to join Belt and Road marks a big diplomatic win for a China in a protracted trade war with the U.S.

"China will continue to expand its openness and allow the sharing of the great opportunities that the Chinese market presents with countries in the rest of the world, including Italy," Xi wrote in an opinion piece for an Italian newspaper, urging other nations to join Beijing's infrastructure initiative.

While Merkel avoided direct criticism of Italy for signing on to Belt and Road, she said it is important that the EU remain unified.

Central and Eastern Europe have grown increasingly reliant on China in such areas as infrastructure. Leaders from 16 countries there meet with Xi each year or so at the "16+1" summit.

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