China backs European integration, Li says before summit with eastern states

SOFIA (Reuters) - China backs EU integration and wants to use a weekend summit with central and eastern Europe to boost cooperation with the region, not undermine the 28 member bloc, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said on Friday.

FILE PHOTO: China's Premier Li Keqiang delivers a news conference with French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe (not pictured) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China June 25, 2018. Fred Dufour/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

Li is visiting Bulgaria, where states from the Baltics to the Balkans will meet China’s premier at the seventh “16+1” summit on Saturday, hoping for fresh money from Chinese companies backed by state banks.

More than 250 Chinese companies and 700 business people from the region are expected to attend a special economic forum alongside the summit on Saturday.

The gathering, though, is unpopular in Brussels and some western European capitals, where it is seen as an attempt to divide the continent.

Li, speaking at a news briefing with Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov in Sofia, reiterated China was looking to boost cooperation and would carry out deals under EU rules.

“We have promoted 16+1 cooperation as part of the efforts to promote European integration. We welcome a united and prosperous Europe. We welcome a strong euro,” he said.

“16+1 is an initiative for cooperation.”

The 16 countries include 11 EU members Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia, as well as non-EU states Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.

Borissov, fresh from chairing the EU presidency that pushed for infrastructure funding to help EU integration of Western Balkan countries, said the summit was not aimed against countries from the rest of the EU.

“It is a union and a meeting that only aim to boost growth and increase incomes of the people,” Borissov said.

Li also said no one would gain from trade wars, comments coming hours after he United States and China slapped tit-for-tat duties on $34 billion worth of the other’s imports.

On Friday, China and Bulgaria signed 10 memorandums for cooperation in energy, small- and medium-sized companies, science, agriculture and others.

China also expressed interest in funding a railway that would connect Bulgaria with neighboring Greece and confirmed its interest in the country’s Belene nuclear energy project.

The China Development Bank signed a framework agreement with Bulgaria Development Bank for 1.5 billion euros ($1.8 billion)that will allow negotiations for financing different projects under China’s Belt and Road initiative in the next five years.

Reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova and Angel Krasimirov; Writing by Jason Hovet; Editing by Robin Pomeroy