In a defiant move against China, seven members of the European Parliament have landed in Taipei for a three-day official mission to discuss disinformation and foreign electoral intervention.
The delegation, representing the main parties of the hemicycle in Brussels, is led by Raphaël Glucksmann, a socialist French MEP who chairs the parliament's special committee on foreign interference in democratic processes. Glucksmann was blacklisted by China in March when Beijing and Brussels engaged in a tit-for-tat exchange of sanctions.
The other six lawmakers are Andrius Kubilius (Lithuania) and Georgios Kyrtsos (Greece) from the centre-right European People's Party (EPP); Andreas Schieder (Austria) from the socialist formation; Petras Auštrevičius (Latvia) from the liberal Renew Europe; Markéta Gregorová (Czech Republic) from the Greens; and Marco Dreosto (Italy) from the far-right Identity and Democracy (ID).
During the stay, which China has already denounced, the group plans to meet with Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen and Premier Su Tseng-chang, as well as other high-ranking officials and experts. The MEPs are scheduled to take part in a series of roundtables and debates centred on disinformation and protection of democracy.
"I think that the world did not understand enough, still, how difficult and how courageous it is to build a democracy while being under threat by an authoritarian regime, like the one in Beijing," Glucksmann told the Taiwanese Premier during a reception.
Taiwan underwent profound democratic reforms in the 1990s, after almost four decades subject to martial law. The 2020 Democracy Index compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit put the island on 11th place, higher than Germany, the United Kingdom and France.
"As a representative of the European citizens, we come to you to thank you for what you did for democracy worldwide. You have shown that in this region, democracy can flourish and that authoritarian regimes are not the future," Glucksmann added.
The Lithuanian issue
The parliamentary mission comes in the midst of a fraught chapter of EU-China relations involving Lithuania. This summer, the Baltic country accepted a request by Taiwan to open a new office in Vilnius using the name "Taiwanese Representative Office" rather than the standard "Taipei".
For China, this semantic switch implies a recognition of Taiwan as a sovereign independent country, an anathema for Beijing. After Lithuania refused to back down, China recalled its ambassador, expelled the Lithuanian envoy from Chinese territory and threatened further "political consequences".
The David-versus-Goliath fight has once again upended the fragile equilibrium in EU-China relations, which were badly damaged earlier this year by a first-ever raft of EU sanctions.
Although member states have been reluctant to come out in defence of Lithuania, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and European Council president Charles Michel have made it clear that China's increasingly aggressive behaviour will not be tolerated.
"Let us stress that threats, political pressure and coercive measures directed against EU member states are not acceptable. We will push back against such actions," wrote von der Leyen and Michel in a letter addressed to the Formosa Club, a cross-party alliance of European and Canadian legislators that want to enhance relations with Taiwan.
The European Parliament recently passed a non-binding resolution calling for closer ties with Taiwan, including a bilateral investment agreement.
The island is the leading supplier of semiconductors -- the chips that power millions of electronic devices and are in dire need.
The text was approved with 580 vote sin favour and just 26 against, reflecting a strong, cross-party consensus around the issue.
"[The visit] is clearly a demonstration that we do mean that acts should follow words," Reinhard Bütikofer, a German MEP who sits with the Greens, told Euronews in a video interview.
Although he is one of the most prominent critics of the Chinese regime, Bütikofer did not participate in the Taiwan trip. Like his colleague Glucksmann, he too was blacklisted by Beijing in March.
China begins "to realise that they cannot work around the European Parliament. So they have to take note of the fact that parliamentarians do use the freedom of speech and to travel where they want to travel, and that China is not dictating to us what we are allowed to do or not," Bütikofer remarked.
"They have to get their act together in a new way."
A divisive visit
The trip has been warmly received in the tech-savvy island, which is in a constant search for signals of international recognition, even if they are symbolic.
"Although we are geographically very far away, between our two sides, we share the same values, such as freedom, democracy, human rights, and rule of law, as well as the insistence of supporting free trade and fighting disinformation. In those regards, we are actually very close," the Taiwanese premier Su told the group of European lawmakers.
"Across the [Taiwan] strait, which is not that far in distance, we find China, a country that uses authoritarianism on its own people, and neglects the rules of free trade; it also spreads fake news, a fact which worries a lot of people. Taiwan is at the frontline of all these threats," Su said.
Beijing sees the visit as a provocation and condemned it before it took place, warning it will "undermine the healthy development of China-EU relations".
"The One-China principle is a universally recognised norm in international relations and an international consensus. It is also the political foundation for the establishment of diplomatic relations and the development of bilateral relations between China and the EU," said a spokesperson of the Chinese Mission to the European Union.
"Not having official exchanges in any form with Taiwan authorities is an essential part of the adherence to the One-China principle. The European Parliament is an official body of the EU. If its committee sends MEPs to visit Taiwan, that would seriously violate the EU’s commitment to the One-China policy."
A question of identity
China and Taiwan have been embroiled in a decades-long feud about national identity. The People's Republic of China is internationally recognised as the only China (hence the One-China principle) and has official diplomatic relations with most countries in the world, including the 27 EU members.
But, at the same time, Taiwan presents itself as the Republic of China, the true heir to the nationalist regime that escaped from the mainland after the communist revolution led by Mao Zedong.
Only a few countries, mainly small-sized nations, recognise Taiwan as a sovereign state. The rest of the international community has links with the island to boost economic ties, but these engagements are not conducted through official diplomatic channels.
To this day, China insists the island is a wayward province that must be reconciled with the mainland. For Beijing, any political overture in favour of Taiwan is unacceptable and is furiously criticised by Chinese officials, whose public remarks have grown increasingly defiant in recent years.
There are growing fears that if Taipei doesn't eventually concede, China could mount a full-scale invasion of the island and take it by military force. In early October, Beijing conducted the largest ever incursion by its air force into Taiwan's air defence zone.
Following the episode, US President Joe Biden said his administration would be willing to protect the island from a Chinese attack. "Yes, we have a commitment to do that," he said, referring to a 1979 act that requires Washington to help Taipei maintain its defence capacities.
For its part, the European Union has tried to stay away from heated rhetoric to avoid antagonising China, one of the bloc's main trading partners. But as EU-China relations irreversibly deteriorate over human right concerns, territorial disputes and political pressure, Brussels has been pushed further into Washington's orbit, adopting a firmer stance against Beijing.
Mikko Huotari, the executive director of the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), believes the parliamentarian mission adds "another level of complications" in EU-China relations but it is also "significant" due to the current political context.
"[The visit] is clearly a sign that some parts of the Brussels machinery take Taiwan and Taiwan affairs much more seriously these days. It's also an expression of European concern about the tensions that are rising in the Taiwan Strait between Mainland China and Taiwan," Huotari told Euronews.
"There's a growing consensus across the world, but also in the European Union, that below this stuff that we currently have, which is maintaining a One-China policy, countries need to ramp up their relationship with Taiwan to make sure that this relationship continues to be operating in a way that reflects the fact that Taiwan is a democratic partner."