x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The euro’s travelling salesmen

The European Union’s leading figures visit China to make an unlikely pitch for the potential of their besieged shared currency to students and leaders in the seemingly recession-proof nation.

The European Council president Herman Van Rompuy, right, and the European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso, left, are in China to promote their embattled economy to its president Hu Jintao and others.
The European Council president Herman Van Rompuy, right, and the European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso, left, are in China to promote their embattled economy to its president Hu Jintao and others.

If anything is a tough sell at the moment, it must be the euro.

As Athens cleans its debris-strewn streets and ratings agencies threaten further downgrades, now might not seem the time to convince others of the benefits of the single currency.

Yet, with the euro zone struggling to pull itself back from the economic precipice, that is just what the European Union's two most senior officials were trying to do yesterday - and in China of all places.

While China's economy, with its unique form of authoritarian capitalism, is expected to expand about 8.5 per cent this year, the euro zone economies are forecast by the International Monetary Fund to contract 0.5 per cent.

Despite this, the European Council president, Herman Van Rompuy, and the European Commission president, José Manuel Barroso, arrived at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing to press the case for the euro to hundreds of Chinese students. They were also there to launch an exhibition extolling the currency's virtues.

Mr Van Rompuy talked of the "astonishing success" of the euro's launch and insisted, in a nod to the length of Chinese history, a common theme used to butter up audiences, "that Europe and China can think in decades, yes even centuries".

"Therefore a period of crisis, such as we live these days, does not distract us from our sense of direction and from our goal: more Europe," he said.

Although the euro zone has been accused of a lack of coordinated action over its sovereign debt crisis, yesterday there appeared to be near perfect harmony between Mr Van Rompuy and Mr Barroso's speechwriters.

One might conclude that, recognising the difficulty of their task, they were simply mounting an extra effort to ram home the message that the currency has improved trade both within and beyond Europe and that the continent is well on the way to putting its economic house in order.

As both men said, more than US$1 billion (Dh3.67bn) of that trade each day is with the dragon economy, although some have said China's undervaluing of the yuan means it benefits from this bilateral trade more than Europe does.

On Tuesday, the two EU leaders met the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, who expressed China's support for the euro zone but declined to commit to investing any of his country's $410 billion (Dh1.47 trillion) sovereign wealth fund into the euro zone's planned €500bn bailout fund.

There is an obvious irony to Europe having to come cap in hand to China, a country where the leadership never lets the people forget they were humbled by predatory European powers in the 19th century.

The audience listening to Mr Van Rompuy and Mr Barroso, however, were in forgiving mood.

"Colonialism was a long time ago. Now we are brothers. China should help the euro get over the crisis," said Wang Xueqing, a fourth-year information management and systems student at the university.

dbardsley@thenational.ae