By Kerry Brown

Wen Jiabao's term as Premier of China will, most commentators presume, come to an end over the next six months as he loses his party and government positions. Over the past decade he has been an authentic reformist voice in the leadership headed by President Hu Jintao. He has been alone in shouting from the rooftops about the need to entrench the rule of law to create a predictable business and trade environment in China. Nowhere will his departure be more keenly felt than in Europe.

Wen's economic portfolio since coming to power in 2003 has included stewardship of the relationship with the European Union. At that time, China had only just entered the World Trade Organization and was ranked sixth in the world economy. By 2012, its economy had quadrupled in size and risen to second position.

In 2002, the EU with its 17 member states was a dominant economic power. A decade later, expanded to 27 member states, the EU remains collectively the largest economy in the world. Stuck in a eurozone debt crisis since 2009, it has amazed and frustrated China with its inability to break free of its economic problems.

Wen has been one of the great cheerleaders for Europe. In October 2011, he expressed great faith in its leaders having the wisdom and skill to sort things out. Almost a year later, attending his final EU-China summit as premier, he must have been wondering whether he spoke too soon.

There was a strong feeling of an era passing as Wen was fêted in Brussels on September 20. 'Your role has been essential in bringing us to where we are today,' said Herman van Rompuy, the President of the European Council. The Chinese premier, however, did not stick to diplomatic niceties, saying it was a matter of 'deep regret' that the EU had not lifted its arms embargo dating from the violent suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.

The EU and China are indispensable partners, and have huge common interests. They have signed deals this year on innovation, education and technology. They are the world's biggest trading partners, and their links are growing deeper.But few walk the planet more qualified than Wen to say that dealing with a patchily integrating EU is not an easy task. And the leadership in Europe might all agree that dealing with China in a consistent way is still a distant goal.

The EU's famed proclivity for disunity has been on show over a trade dispute, a claim by 25 European companies that China is exporting solar panels below cost and blocking imports from EU manufacturers. Wen has seen the EU trade commissioner, Karel De Gucht, threatening China with sanctions at the same time as Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, was visiting Beijing and saying the solar panel dispute should be resolved through dialogue.

Wen's putative successor as premier, Li Keqiang, has expressed only the most benign views about the EU, and it is hard to say how his approach might differ. The concern for all China watchers is how the new leadership will deal with the urgent unfinished business of reform at home.

The leadership under Hu Jintao has presided over great economic results, but done little on internal reform. Taxes have been lifted on farmers and a start made on building social welfare to attack deepening inequality; and such structural issues as inefficient decision-making and lack of accountability are being addressed.

The EU and China often need to talk about differences, and events so far in 2012 have underlined how different the two polities are. The EU has witnessed impressive social and political stability despite the tough challenges. Europeans have punished leaders they have blamed for the crisis mostly through the ballot box rather than by demonstrating on the streets.

In China, at least until this autumn, the leadership provided high levels of growth as part of a social contract under which the rulers monopolize political power but allow economic freedom. The real challenge there, as this year's long-planned leadership transition has proved, is providing more political certainty in an environment where the rules for appointing new leaders are either unclear, ill-established or simply being made up.

In Europe, markets have been spooked by the lack of clarity about the plans to deal with debt issues among member states. In China, it has been the opacity of the political system and its poor news management that has given a field day to rumour, especially since the removal earlier this year of Bo Xilai, the ambitious Party boss of Chongqing, whose wife has been convicted of poisoning a British business associate.

Despite all this, Europe and China are strangely similar in at least one aspect. Expressed in different ways and for different reasons, anger at elites, particularly business and political ones, in both Europe and China has risen, along with a new level of disenchantment with existing systems.

In both China and the EU, there is a sense that fundamental decisions need to be made about how things are done, who has power and what they are using it to achieve. For China, we are now moving into an era where the major challenges are socio-political, not economic. In Europe, failure so far to deal with the eurozone crisis has provoked uncomfortable thoughts about the need for more profound political, not just economic, integration.

Both remain haunted by pasts where things went badly wrong. Trying to liberate themselves from these historic shackles and understand that the future must, be different, has been a big challenge.

The EU and China don't talk about this common ground much. Their dialogue is technical and fragmented. But lurking beneath so much of it is this sense that they have more in common than they think.

And this is not just on the official level. Opinion polls carried out for the University of Nottingham show that, despite the European powers' colonial history in China, 85 per cent of Chinese have a positive opinion of the EU. This puts Europe way ahead of Russia (74 per cent), the US (58 per cent) and Japan (32 per cent). The more Chinese learn about the complex history of the EU, the more positive their feelings.

Both China and the EU face a period of potential great change. There is more common ground than appears on the surface. But they will have to face these challenges with one of the most supportive and knowledgeable pro-Europeans in the Chinese leadership no longer in power.

Kerry Brown is team leader of the Europe China Research and Advice Network (ECRAN) and director of the China studies centre at the University of Sydney


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