By Tom Daly
BEIJING (Reuters) - Major European Union countries want to deal with China as a group rather than sign bilateral agreements as individual states, German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier said on Friday, attending a summit in Beijing on China's Belt and Road plan.
European countries have generally signalled their willingness to participate in China's programme to re-create the old Silk Road joining China with Asia and Europe.
But key states like France and Germany have said China must in turn improve access and fair competition for foreign firms.
Italy in March became the first major Western government to back China's initiative, even as some EU leaders cautioned Rome against rushing into the arms of Beijing.
Nonetheless, Altmaier said Germany, France, Spain and the United Kingdom had shown at the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing on Friday that the EU was "in its great majority" united in its belief that "we can only implement our positions together."
"In the big EU states we have agreed that we don't want to sign any bilateral memorandums but together make necessary arrangements between the greater European Economic Area and the economic area of Greater China," Altmaier said when asked if he could see Germany signing a similar bilateral agreement to Italy.
A spokesman for Altmaier's office later said he was talking about general arrangements and not specifically the Belt and Road.
The minister said he was encouraged by Chinese President Xi Jinping's pledge to pursue free trade, multilateralism and sustainability as part of Belt and Road.
"We will take this promise seriously" and make suggestions on how to achieve these goals in both Asia and Europe, he said.
China is a partner and a competitor at the same time and the EU must define its interests, Altmaier said.
"And for that we need an industry strategy. For that we need our own connectivity strategy," he added.
(Reporting by Tom Daly; writing by Beijing Monitoring Desk; editing by Darren Schuettler)
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Updated Date: Apr 27, 2019 07:05:14 IST