by Dr. Sebastien Goulard
When Lithuania decided to quit Chinas’17+1 mechanism in May 2021, many questions arose about the future of the 17+1 mechanism. Created in 2012, it gathers together 17 Central and Eastern Europeans Countries (CEEC) and China, and together they are developing initiatives to foster trade and dialogue between the two regions.
According to Chinese authorities, Lithuania’s departure is a good decision, since it can actually be an opportunity to improve China-CEEC cooperation. For the last months, authorities in Vilnius have formulated some criticisms that have embarrassed China.
However, the main obstacle for a stronger cooperation with the 17+1 mechanism is that this initiative gathers together some very different countries that do not share the same interests or position regarding China. First their level of development is very different from Albania (with a GDP of $5,349 per capita in 2019) and Estonia (with a GDP of $23,723 per capita in 2019). But more importantly, they do not all belong to the European Union. 5 out 17 are Western Balkan countries (Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia) that are still out of the Union. It is therefore difficult to reach some consensus regarding their relations with China. Moreover, EU members cannot take decision regarding international trade without the consent of European institutions in Brussels. It means that the possibilities offered by the 17+21 mechanism are rather limited.
Moreover, because of a lack of cohesion among them, CEE countries are competing with each other regarding possible investment from China. Greece, Serbia, and Hungary have successfully become major Chinese FDI (foreign direct investment) destination from China. A major project promoted by China is the construction of a railroad that would Athens in the Mediterranean to Budapest, via Belgrade. But some other CEE countries feel excluded from this initiative, and could be reluctant get further involved.
Instead of a 17+1 mechanism, Lithuania is pleading for a stronger dialogue between the EU and China. All too often, major decisions regarding EU-China relations are taken by the German-French couple, and other EU members feel excluded. That is the reason why in early July, the Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda asked Charles Michel, the European Council President to organize a EU-China summit this year every EU member will attend.
Of course, to be successful, EU members first need to work together about what they want to achieve with China, our first trade partner.