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Time is right for EU 'to catch up'

By Fu Jing | China Daily Europe | Updated: 2017-04-30 14:26

Europe should 'wake up and work closely with China' on Belt and Road Initiative, says senior expert

To become effectively integrated into such a huge project, the European Union should consider hosting an urgent conference to follow up on the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, a senior China expert advises ahead of the event, which will be held in Beijing on May 14 and 15.

"It is an excellent idea for the European Union to catch up, as I believe the Belt and Road Initiative contains a very important part, which is Europe," Jochum Haakma, chairman of the Brussels-based EU-China Business Association, said in a recent interview.

The senior China observer from the Netherlands worked in Hong Kong and Shanghai for nine years as a diplomat, and he still considers connecting China and Europe his mission at the association.

 Time is right for EU 'to catch up'

Jochum Haakma, chairman of the Brussels-based EU-China Business Association. Provided to China Daily

But he has realized there is a contrast between Europe and Asia regarding the understanding of the significance of the Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to connect Asia, Europe and Africa by improving the flow of goods, human resources, capital and other elements of productivity.

Even against a backdrop of protectionism and isolationism, some countries in the Americas have agreed to join the Belt and Road framework, and Washington has reportedly shown interest in it recently.

Up to 30 state leaders, including 11 from Europe, have confirmed that they will attend the Beijing forum.

However, Haakma says it has become very clear that Asian countries are "much more aligned, thinking much more strategically and also practically, and learning how to follow up with the Belt and Road Initiative, than Europe.

"Europe is less involved and not really practically doing something, and so I agree that the next big Belt and Road Initiative forum should be organized in Brussels," says Haakma.

He has even said this should be an urgent follow-up step. "This high-level follow-up event should be organized within half a year in Brussels," says Haakma. "That would be a very straightforward step."

He says the European Union should not only commit "the awareness but also the political willingness" to work together with China to set up working groups to follow up on the Belt and Road Initiative.

But he says that right now, the European Union still lacks awareness of the significance of the initiative, mainly because within the EU, there always will be opposition because some fear China's growing investment activities on the continent. "But I don't think that this group is strong enough," says Haakma.

Many entrepreneurs and bankers in Europe have seen how important it is to work together, he adds.

"I think this awareness of realizing the importance of China's investment in Europe has been gathering up because of Brexit and (US President) Donald Trump's taking office in the White House," says Haakma.

So the time is right for the European Union "to wake up and work closely with China", he adds.

For entrepreneurs, it's like "heaven" to be integrated in such a big project, because it has a life cycle of at least three to four decades in improving the world's infrastructure conditions, he says.

Against the rise of populism and right-wing political forces in Europe, Haakma says it's very important for Europe to stay together.

"Even in the relationship with China, Europe as a strong entity working together economically and politically will be a much better counterpart for China to deal with," he says.

Between China and the European Union, Haakma says the hot topics are comprehensive investment agreements, and sometimes both sides have discussed the possibility of launching free trade negotiations.

"But Brussels has not mentioned the Belt and Road Initiative very often," says Haakma, adding that it is a really important and huge infrastructure project, describing it as the world's biggest ever.

"The other side of the Belt and Road Initiative is Europe. And I think if you add Europe in this fashion, you are a much better counterpart to China. You can do much more together."

Haakma has urged Europeans to come forward with plans to work together with the Chinese government to design projects via the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, in which many European countries have become members.

"This is very important for Europe," he says.

Haakma says he would be delighted if one of the outcomes of the forum in Beijing would be to set up a Belt and Road Initiative technology fund.

"To achieve this, the first important thing is that the right players will be there at the forum in Beijing. Then they have to sit together and form a few working groups to kick off," he says.

As to China's growing activities of investment in Europe, he sees it as catch-up by China after Europeans have invested for such a long time in China.

He says that especially after China entered the World Trade Organization 15 years ago, European investments in China have gone up tremendously.

Polls conducted by the European and US Chambers of Commerce in China, especially those over the years after the accession of China to the WTO, indicated that up to 80 percent of the respondents have said they were happy to invest in China and were there to stay for the long haul.

"We are making profits in China, and even some of them said they were making much better profits in China than anywhere in the world where they invest," says Haakma.

However, when looking at China's investment in Europe, he says the problem is that the mainstream people in Europe don't look at it this way. "Honestly, there is fear," he says.

He says his task is to persuade people to get rid of this fear.

The development of China, especially in the past two or three decades, has been tremendous, he says, adding that he believes awareness and trust are key to doing business there.

Taking his country as an example, he says the Netherlands has a prime minister who knows China and has visited a couple of times and had a business background before moving into politics. Haakma says his country is keen on further developing investment and trade relations with China.

In his view, there are still enormous opportunities in China, especially in the consumer market in e-commerce and agriculture. "So to go to China to get the knowledge, and to try to integrate into this running horse is very important," says Haakma.

"Europeans have to integrate with this development, and you have to line up there because this is what is happening," he adds.

Haakma warns that this is not only happening now, but will continue to do so in the next 20 to 30 years.

As chairman of the European Union China Business Association, he pleads with Europe to be aware of what's happening in China.

"We need to be aware of the momentum and make use of and take the momentum to be an active player in the biggest infrastructure project in the world," he says.



2012: Honorary doctorate degree in European University

1995: Post-doctorate course in Harvard Business School

1971-73: Studied in University of Groningen

1968-76: Studied law in Utrecht University


2008-present: Chairman of the board of the NCH (Netherlands Council for Trade Promotion) in Hague

2007-present: Global director business development of the TMF (TeleManagement Forum) Group BV in Amsterdam

Diplomat in in Jakarta, Hong Kong and Shanghai

Chairman of the Brussels-based EU-China Business Association

Book: Historical books and historical romance.

Hobby: Reading, traveling, tennis, golf watching soccer.

Food: Cantonese.

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