France’s Emmanuel Macron declared the “time of European naïveté” towards China was over as Xi Jinping was hosted with pomp in Rome for a visit that has alarmed both Brussels and Washington.
Speaking after a meeting of European heads of state in Brussels, the French president said he welcomed plans to toughen rules for Chinese investments and efforts to amend EU antitrust rules to facilitate mergers between large European groups amid mounting concerns over Beijing’s global ambitions.
“The time of European naïveté is ended,” Mr Macron said on Friday. “For many years we had an unco-ordinated approach and China took advantage of our divisions.”
The 27-country meeting in the Belgian capital offered broad backing for a plan by the European Commission and the EU’s diplomatic service that branded Beijing a “systemic rival” and threatened retaliation including tighter rules on China’s investments in Europe, diplomats said. Mr Macron and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, have both supported the initiative, which has yet to be formally endorsed.
Yet Mr Macron’s comments failed to mask divisions among the EU member states. On Friday, the Italian populist government received the Chinese president in Rome as it prepares to endorse the Communist Republic’s international investment programme, called the Belt and Road Initiative.
One senior EU diplomat said discussions over China produced a “largely consensual assessment” of how to tackle concerns ranging from Beijing’s restrictions on European corporate investment to security fears over the use of Chinese technology in communications networks.
“We shouldn’t fall for the attempts of China to split the EU up”, a Brussels diplomat warned.
The EU is split over China’s BRI, with 13 central and eastern states having been enlisted. Rome is due on Saturday to become the first G7 country to sign a memorandum of understanding and endorse it — a move that generally is the prelude to loans and infrastructure investments.
Giuseppe Conte, Italy’s prime minister, sought to give fellow EU leaders reassurances about his country’s decision, diplomats said, promising the deal would be transparent. Rome was still wary of Beijing in some areas, including cyber security, he insisted, according to people who witnessed the discussion.
Meanwhile in Rome, Mr Xi and his wife arrived at the Quirinale palace to meet Italian president Sergio Mattarella, who received the Chinese leader with Italian military honours. Later on Friday, the Chinese president was due to attend a state banquet at the palace with 170 guests followed by a concert by the Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli.
Large parts of Rome were closed off for security reasons as Mr Xi and members of a 500-strong delegation moved through the city. Several art galleries were closed to accommodate private views for high-ranking Chinese visitors.
Mr Matarella described the planned agreement as an “ideal framework for Italian and Chinese companies,” while Luigi Di Maio, deputy prime minister and leader of Italy’s anti-establishment Five Star movement called it “a great opportunity for all of us”.
Mr Xi, who is to meet Mr Macron, Ms Merkel and Jean-Claude Juncker, EU commission president, are due to meet Mr Xi on Tuesday, along with Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president, hailed the “mutual respect and trust” between Italy and China.
“There is no conflict of interest between us and we both know how to respect each other's concerns,” Mr Xi said.
But other Italian politicians voiced concerns that Italy would leave itself vulnerable if it allowed unchecked Chinese investment into the country’s strategic assets.
The country “cannot sell a piece of Italian and European sovereignty to the Chinese,” Antonio Tajani, the Italian president of the European Parliament, said.
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