Are European Civil Servants and Politicians Becoming More Curious about Taiwan?
The relationship between Taiwan and the EU is developing on many levels. The relationship between politicians and civil servants on the one side and Taiwan NGOs in Europe and individuals on the other is particularly interesting because of a new openness to engaging with a range of actors and new political voices in Taiwan.
In Europe, a new generation of politicians seems to be emerging that is far more open toward Taiwan‘s diverse history and political scene. Simply put, this new generation does not look at Taiwan through a lens of anti-communism, regarding Taiwan as "Free China". Rather, it seeks a broad, nuanced and sophisticated picture of Taiwan. This change has slowly developed over the past decade.
This may be a part of a larger development as this trend is also observed among journalists. This could be seen during the meeting in Singapore between the presidents of Taiwan and China. Journalists in Germany and Denmark who got information from Taiwan experts did a significantly better job of reporting the news than journalists relying on old habits of inviting comment only from China experts. The new generation does not solely consist of reporters from a younger age group. It is merely related to a different mind-set: seeking the full picture and considering Taiwan in its own right, as a distinct entity like other countries.
On the institutional level, the EU and Taiwan have a very healthy relationship and the EU continues to be the largest investor in Taiwan. In terms of trade, the two parties have therefore a great potential to further increase their trade and to enter new trade agreements. As part of these friendly relations, the EU has rightly criticised Taiwan for lifting the moratorium on capital punishment. However, the EU has been unusually silent on other matters, such as the treatment of Europeans who have been banned from Taiwan for political reasons.
Compared to civil servants or politicians, it now seems almost as if academics feel more restricted in their engagement with what can be considered politically sensitive issues, even at events which could be considered purely academic in nature.
Over the years, Taiwan Corner and others have been able to raise issues with politicians and civil servants, despite an apparent lack of interest at the institutional level. Despite China‘s direct pressure on some European politicians, they are willing to meet and engage with Taiwan-related issues both publicly or quietly away from public gaze.
How politicians and civil servants discuss Taiwan may be best understood by going through three concrete cases that are related to Taiwan‘s democratic development. Democratic development is important because the commitment of European politicians to Taiwan is strongly correlated to Taiwan‘s own commitment to democracy.
The case of the young German Daniel Helmdach shows that treatment of foreigners‘ political rights in Taiwan breaches the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which Taiwan signed in 2009. Today, all charges against Daniel Helmdach has been dropped and he has received compensation. He was wrongly accused of participating in an anti-nuclear demonstration. However, his participation is irrelevant. The important point is that according to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights foreigners in Taiwan have the right to participate in demonstrations. One would expect this to be unquestioned in a democracy like Taiwan. Eighteen other Europeans were banned from Taiwan in 2014 under the same category as Daniel Helmdach. The DPP proposed a change in the law that will more closely follow the covenant, but this has so far been blocked by the KMT.
Taiwan Corner obtained data about these cases and the case of Daniel Helmdach. The offices of European politicians and civil servants became interested in these cases and wanted to have a detailed conversation with Taiwan Corner about the details. The reaction of German politicians in Berlin was very different. They initially refused to take on the case and trusted the Taipei Representative Office‘s statement that Daniel Helmdach had violated the law. Of course, the same politicians later regretted saying this after Daniel Helmdach won his case against Taiwan‘s immigration authorities.
Taiwan Corner organised a trip to London and Brussels for Wu Cheng and Wei Yang. During our visit to Brussels we met with civil servants at the EEAS and politicians in the European parliament. In London we had talks at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the House of Lords. Politicians and civil servants were genuinely interested in meeting Wu Cheng and Wei Yang after the events of the Sunflower Movement. The discussion focused on the reasons behind the Sunflower Movement, their position on cross strait relations, and their vision for Taiwan.
The civil servants and politicians were willing to engage in constructive talks and showed genuine interest in trying to understand the background of the Sunflower Movement participants. There was clearly a recognition that a new political force might be developing that needs to be understood.
In March 2016, Taiwan Corner is organising an event together with the European Parliament‘s Taiwan Friendship Group. Participants will discuss Taiwan‘s democracy today and how Taiwan developed into a democracy. As in the other cases, politicians are willing to engage in events and meetings when there is particular topic that is relevant to the current situation in Taiwan. This doesn't mean that their political views align with Taiwan Corner or any of the invited participants from Taiwan. However, this new generation of politicians want to have a broader picture of Taiwan and recognise that Taiwan is becoming far more diverse.
During our trip to London, as well as on other occasions, many academics (with the notable exception of colleagues at the London School of Economics) seemed extremely cautious about meeting with Wu Cheng and Wai Yang. These academics now appear far more politically concerned than politicians and civil servants: They did not seem willing to advertise the event with Wu Cheng and Wai Yang, and the level of interest in engaging with guests privately also seemed surprisingly low. We cannot help but feel that the academic community missed an opportunity to engage with and question Taiwan‘s new forces in an open way.
Outside of the academy a new life is evolving among politicians and civil servants that gives hope for an open and direct engagement whereby different views can meet and discuss Taiwan. We hope that European scholars will not be left behind. We need their depth of scholarship, experience and engagement.
Michael Danielsen is Chairman of Taiwan Corner.