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Energy & Economics
French finance minister Christine Lagarde

Strengthening resilience in a changing geopolitical landscape

by Christine Lagarde

Welcome address by Christine Lagarde, President of the ECB, at the 9th ECB conference on central, eastern and south-eastern European countriesFrankfurt am Main, 17 July 2023 It is a great pleasure to open the ninth ECB conference on central, eastern and south-eastern European countries. The CESEE region – which comprises 21 different economies – can overall be considered a European success story in recent decades, having enjoyed rapid convergence towards higher-income countries. Between 2000 and 2021, the economic size of the region almost doubled to 40% of the euro area aggregate. And this strong growth has led to rising living standards, with average GDP per capita jumping from 36% to 54% of the euro area aggregate in the same period. But the world has changed dramatically since we last held this conference in 2019. A series of shocks have upended our old reality and replaced it with new uncertainties. Devastatingly, one of those shocks has been the outbreak of war in Europe – an event that we once thought consigned to the history books. Russia’s unjustified war against Ukraine and its people is a human tragedy. And it has had deep economic consequences for the CESEE region in particular. In parallel, the world is changing in ways which make the growth models of many CESEE countries more vulnerable, as these models generally involve high levels of trade openness and integration into global value chains. But as Graham Greene once wrote, a “feat of daring can alter the whole conception of what is possible.” And the challenge now facing the CESEE region is how to continue its convergence story and ensure that growth remains resilient in this new landscape. Fortunately, CESEE economies can already look back on a strong history of resilience – be it mastering the transition from central planning to market economies in the 1990s or recovering from the global financial crisis with impressive speed. I therefore have every confidence that they will be able to adapt to these new uncertainties. A changing geopolitical landscape There are two broad shifts reshaping the global economy that may have profound implications for the CESEE region: rising geopolitical tensions and weakening global trade. After a long period in which the United States was the sole superpower, the world is becoming more multipolar, with greater competition between major powers, less respect for international rules and norms and a waning influence for multilateral institutions. In this environment, even deep commercial ties may be insufficient to prevent trading relationships from becoming adversarial. This makes the global environment increasingly prone to shocks and the task of macroeconomic stabilisation for all countries much harder. Unfortunately, the CESEE economies know this all too well. Russia’s war against Ukraine triggered a massive shock to the global economy – especially to energy and food markets – and CESEE economies have been particularly exposed, given their geographic proximity to the conflict. While inflation has now started to come down, over two-thirds of economies in the CESEE region saw annual inflation hit 13% or above last year, with several countries seeing markedly higher price increases. By comparison, annual inflation in the euro area was 8.4%. Geopolitical tensions risk accelerating the second shift in the global landscape: weakening global trade. Since the global financial crisis, trade growth as a share of world GDP has plateaued. And we are also seeing rising levels of protectionism as countries reconfigure their supply chains to align with new strategic goals. Over the last decade, the number of trade restrictions in place has increased tenfold. The CESEE region, and Europe more generally, may be vulnerable to such a shift. Last year, trade as a share of GDP was higher than the euro area average for two-thirds of CESEE economies. And while other major economies, such as the United States, have seen trade as a share of GDP fall since the pandemic, in the euro area it reached a record high in 2022. A new foundation for strengthening resilience A changing geopolitical landscape means that, in the euro area and the CESEE region, we need to build a new foundation for strengthening resilience. This foundation rests on further deepening the European Union and its ties to the surrounding region. I see three key elements. The first is reinforcing openness within our region. Trade fragmentation could see the flow of goods and services increasingly being pulled towards different trade blocs, at the expense of countries outside those blocs. By leveraging our regional strength, Europe and the CESEE region can recreate some of the benefits of globalisation on a smaller scale. The euro area is already the main trading partner for most CESEE economies. And we can capitalise on this existing momentum. Between the year 2000 and last year, the share of euro area imports from the CESEE region increased from 5% to 10%. And the share of euro area exports to CESEE economies reached 11% last year, almost double that at the start of the millennium. Moreover, CESEE economies in particular can benefit from changing global trade patterns as companies seek suppliers closer to home. Survey evidence shows that firms in the CESEE region, and especially those based in the EU, are seen as highly reliable trading partners. The ECB also has a key role to play here as the guardian of the euro. Our monetary policy plays an important anchoring role for the CESEE region, as the euro is widely used in trade invoicing and financing. Euro cash also serves as an important store of value – demand for it surged in CESEE economies following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The second key element is increasing our collective security. Europe and the CESEE economies have already taken substantial steps to increase their energy security, given the dangerous historical reliance on Russian fossil fuels in their energy mix. In February 2022, the EU was importing around 36% of its natural gas from Russia. Within the space of nine months, that fell sharply to 13% as the EU reduced its gas consumption and diversified towards imports of liquified natural gas. Most, though not all, CESEE economies have also made significant progress in substituting energy imports away from Russia and in building up gas storage levels. But we cannot stop there. We need to accelerate our efforts to decarbonise and increase our energy independence. That is why initiatives that help to build renewable energy sources are so important – such as Next Generation EU and the EU’s recent energy support package for countries in the Western Balkans. The third key element is defending and spreading our common values. The attack on Ukraine was also an assault on European values – such as the respect for international law and human rights. That is why Europe has imposed unprecedented sanctions on Russia and provided substantial support to Ukraine following the invasion. To date, the EU has made available €38.3 billion in economic assistance and over €21 billion in military support. The strength of the EU’s response demonstrates not only its capacity for action, but also its appeal as a political project that others see the benefit of joining – what the West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer once described as the “Magnet Europa” effect. The push for EU enlargement has recently gathered momentum as a consequence of Russia’s war. Last year, the EU granted Ukraine, Moldova and Bosnia and Herzegovina candidate status. And it launched the process to open accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, while also becoming open to granting Georgia the status of candidate country, conditional on reforms. Conclusion Let me conclude. A series of shocks have dramatically changed the global landscape in recent years. And today, rising geopolitical tensions and weakening global trade mean that economies in the CESEE region need to build a new foundation of resilience. But the record of past crises has already demonstrated just how resilient CESEE countries can be. Despite an exceptionally difficult 2022, the prospects for the CESEE region are encouraging. There are clear structural strengths that stand to benefit CESEE economies in the medium to long run, such as well-educated workforces and strong ties with Europe. So the task at hand is how to channel that spirit of resilience to counteract these new uncertainties. And by leveraging our regional strength and further deepening our economic and political ties, I have no doubt that Europe and the economies in the CESEE region can flourish together. Thank you – and I hope you enjoy today’s proceedings.

Energy & Economics
EURO vs. Yuan. European and Chinese flags

Overcoming an EU-China trade and trust deficit

by Shairee Malhotra

Beijing seeks normalisation of ties with Europe; however, for Brussels, reconciliation will be conditional on Beijing’s willingness to address fundamental divergences On 7-8 December, European Commission President von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel will be in Beijing for the 24th European Union (EU)-China summit, but the first in-person one in four years, taking place at a critical juncture in EU-China ties. At the previous EU-China virtual summit in April 2022, the Ukraine conflict was the primary talking point for the Europeans and other issues such as climate and economics were relegated to the back burner. This time, the focus is likely to be economics. A relatively constructive meeting between United States (US) President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping on 15 November, which led to the resumption of US-China high-level military dialogue and Xi’s assurances on Taiwan, has contributed to paving the way for the EU to focus on ironing out economic irritants. Deficits, dependencies and de-risking With daily EU-China trade amounting to 2.2 billion euros, the EU is concerned about its widening goods trade deficit with China—400 billion euros in 2022—referred to by EU Ambassador to China, Jorge Toledo, as the “highest in the history of mankind”. In the context of China’s restrictive environment for foreign companies, the EU is keen for a level playing field and greater reciprocity in trade. Another major area of contention is Chinese overcapacity through subsidies in key industrial export sectors such as electric vehicles (EVs) that are undermining European automotive industries. The European Commission has already launched a probe for the EVs sector and is now considering other major sectors including wind energy and medical devices. In addition, Europe is heavily dependent on critical raw materials such as lithium and gallium from China, which are intrinsic to its green transition. While over 90 percent of the EU’s supply of raw materials comes from China, the EU aims to address this dependency through its Critical Raw Materials Act. Factors such as Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, human rights violations in Xinjiang, and pandemic-era supply chain disruptions have deteriorated European perceptions of China. The downswing in EU-China ties was further accentuated by Beijing’s posture in the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the failure of European leaders to coax China to positively use its influence with the EU’s most immediate security threat, Moscow. Thus, a major trust deficit has accompanied the trade deficit. On 6 November, only a month before the summit, von der Leyen in her speech warned against “China’s changing global posture” with its “strong push to make China less dependent on the world and the world more dependent on China”. While acknowledging China as Europe’s most important trading partner, she emphasised the “explicit element of rivalry” in the relationship. Another dialogue of the deaf? The EU and its member states are recalibrating their China policies, with countries such as Germany even releasing China-specific documents outlining their approach. The EU’s “de-risking” strategy aims to reduce dependencies in critical sectors, and through an expansion of its policy toolbox, the Union is implementing a range of measures including greater scrutiny of inbound-outbound foreign investments, anti-coercion instruments, and export controls for dual-purpose technologies. In this context of an evolving European approach, the upcoming summit is a much-anticipated one for EU-China watchers. Despite the strain in relations, high-level diplomatic exchanges have continued in full swing, many of which, such as von der Leyen’s visit to China in April, EU Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis’s visit in September, and EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell’s visit in October were conducted in preparation for this summit. A sluggish Chinese economy gives Europe room to wield its economic leverage. However, grey areas in Europe’s China policy remain, especially with regard to the implementation of measures and the need for more effective coordination, often compromised by a lack of unity amongst member states and tendencies of leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to prioritise business interests over all else. Thus, straddling the fine balance between economic opportunities and security risks will continue to be a test for how Europe manages its interdependence with the lucrative Chinese market. Previous EU-China summits have not produced a joint statement, and according to sources, this summit is unlikely to produce one as well. Yet it is an opportunity for the EU to put forward unresolved concerns and forge some common ground. Without concrete deliverables, the upcoming summit risks being another “dialogue of the deaf” as Borrell famously described the previous one. Amidst renewed transatlantic solidarity, Beijing’s rhetoric indicates that it seeks normalisation of ties with Europe and a more independent European policy towards China away from Washington’s influence. Yet for Brussels, reconciliation will be conditional on Beijing’s willingness to address fundamental divergences.