ATHENS (Reuters) - European Union countries must work together to prevent state-backed Chinese firms taking control of strategic sectors within the region, the chief executive of French oil company Total (TOTF.PA) said on Friday.
In June, French President Emmanuel Macron urged Brussels to come up with a system for screening investments in strategic sectors from outside the bloc, which some western European nations have supported.
But some smaller eastern and southern members of the European Union which have benefited from state-backed Chinese investment have rejected taking any steps against Beijing.
“It’s an issue for all of us. The Chinese are now on the offensive in Europe, just like they have been in Africa. They have found the weakest links, which are Greece, Macedonia, all these small countries,” Total CEO Patrick Pouyanne told reporters during a visit to Greece by Macron and a French business delegation.
The French oil executive said a common European response was the only adequate strategy to counter what he described as China’s “divide and rule” approach.
“On these issues, I can only agree with (Macron). We won’t manage to fight each of us on our own. What we’re seeing is that they’re dividing up the system. They say: ‘The French don’t agree, so we’ll go see the Irish, we’ll see with the Greeks’.”
“We shouldn’t let them in on their own. European companies must get in alliances with them to control the capital. But we shouldn’t refuse Chinese capital,” he said.
“It’s an open world. The question for us all, and it’s been 10 years we’re going through that in our business, is to make friends with the Chinese, not being anti, or we’ll lose.”
Total’s Pouyanne also said he supported Macron’s call for more reciprocity with China - the idea that Chinese companies should only get free access to Europe if European firms get similar access to China.
“It’s a state economy. Only in Brussels do people think it’s a market economy,” Pouyanne said. “And we can see that in an industry like solar energy, where they flood our markets, which is dumping.”
French officials also said they wanted to prevent more strategic sectors of the Greek economy falling into non-European hands after China’s COSCO Shipping took control of Piraeus Port, the country’s biggest.
Reporting by Michel Rose; editing by David Clarke