On February 1, the 11th Legislative Yuan will elect its speaker. This decision will have important ramifications for Taiwan’s efforts to expand its international space, as parliamentary diplomacy has been a critical tool allowing Taipei to circumvent its diplomatic isolation. Europe continues to observe the lead-up to the consequential vote on Thursday closely.
The pertinence of parliamentary diplomacy for Taiwan becomes clear as we examine it in the context of the recent openness in the country’s relations with Europe.
Out of all EU institutions, the European Parliament, with its directly elected lawmakers across the 27 member states, has been at the forefront of the efforts to elevate the perception of Taiwan to that of a like-minded partner in its own right rather than a festering sore in EU-China relations.
At the level of member states, legislatures have also proven to be ahead of executive bodies in promoting pragmatic cooperation with Taiwan, while remaining adherent to the “One China Policies” and conscious of the political sensitivities surrounding Taiwan’s absurd international status.
The cooperation between European and Taiwanese parliamentarians has succeeded largely thanks to the commitment of the 10th Legislative Yuan’s leadership to the internationalization of the assembly.
In a recent interview with Nikkei Asia, the incumbent Speaker You Si-kun (游錫堃) asserted that “Through parliamentary diplomacy, [Taiwan] has broken China’s diplomatic blockade.”
During his tenure, You made great strides to strengthen the Legislative Yuan’s institutional framework for supporting overseas engagements. Soon after taking office in February 2020, he established the International Public Opinion Working Group, which was soon upgraded to the International Affairs Working Group. More recently, You oversaw the inauguration of the Department of International Affairs, the first unit in the history of the Legislative Yuan responsible for comprehensively managing all matters related to parliamentary diplomacy.
These recent efforts to expand Taiwan’s international outreach through parliamentary cooperation strengthened the nations’ ties with Europe.
In 2020, the Czech Senate President Miloš Vystrčil led a historic 89-member strong delegation to Taiwan. As the first senior foreign politician from a non-diplomatic ally of Taiwan to deliver a speech at the Legislative Yuan, he famously declared “I am Taiwanese” on the floor of the legislature. Beyond its powerful symbolism, the visit also produced tangible results, including the Czech Republic allowing Taiwanese state-run banks to open branches in the country.
Last year, the Czech Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Markéta Pekarová Adamová, arrived in Taiwan with a delegation consisting of nearly 150 members. During Pekarová’s “Taiwan Mission,” Taipei and Prague concluded 10 memorandums of understanding and letters of intent on issues ranging from museum exchanges to lithium battery recycling.
Most recently, Viktorija Čmilytė-Nielsen, speaker of the Lithuanian Seimas, led a delegation focused on deepening economic and fiscal cooperation between Taipei and Vilnius.
At the level of the EU, Speaker You also received a 13-member delegation from the European Parliament’s Committee on International Trade, led by the assembly’s Vice President Nicola Beer, in December 2022. Despite the pushback from the European Commission and the European External Action Service, Beer publicly advocated for a bilateral investment agreement as a central feature of the growing partnership between the EU and Taiwan.
Notably, Taiwan’s engagements with the leadership of European legislatures have not been merely a one-way street. In 2022, Legislator You led a high-profile cross-party delegation to Czechia, Poland, and Lithuania.
The visit indicated that under You’s leadership, the legislature maintained a close alignment with President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) administration regarding Taiwan’s foreign policy outlook. This shared focus has revolved around the diversification of the nation’s foreign relations and the expansion of outreach to the US, Japan, New Southbound Policy countries, and, notably, Europe.
Since no party secured an absolute majority in the recent Taiwanese elections, it remains uncertain who will emerge as the next Legislative Yuan speaker and how they will influence the nation’s approach to parliamentary diplomacy. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) nominated You to continue in his current role, while the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) selected legislator-at-large-elect Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) as their candidate for legislative speaker, along with Legislator Johnny Chiang (江啟臣) as his deputy.
Given the composition of the 11th Legislative Yuan, either the DPP or the KMT will need the support of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), the “critical minority,” to secure the leadership of the legislature. In case of KMT’s victory, tensions between William Lai’s (賴清德) administration and the Legislative Yuan speaker can have a detrimental effect on the efficiency of Taiwan’s parliamentary diplomacy, a key instrument for bolstering Taiwan’s international profile.
If the new legislative speaker presses for policies aimed at appeasing China or openly fights the presidential administration, European politicians will pay close attention and take action. These strains would make parliamentary engagements much harder for the European side.
It is concerning that the KMT nominee Han Kuo-yu does not have a strong international profile and boasts ostensibly close ties to the Chinese Communist Party.
As he began his tenure as mayor of Kaohsiung, Han visited Hong Kong and Macau, where he engaged in secretive high-level discussions at the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government without consulting Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council. Moreover, the controversial ex-mayor strongly voiced his criticism against President Tsai’s foreign policy of “saving face,” accusing her of guiding Taiwan towards a “increasingly narrow and dangerous path.” As Lai’s foreign policy will likely be a continuation of the international outreach efforts jumpstarted by President Tsai, it remains to be seen to what extent Han could effectively maintain or expand exchanges with European parliamentarians.
At the same time, the KMT leadership also has strong connections to Europe, which they could effectively utilize to maintain and expand the Legislative Yuan’s international purview.
With a doctorate in international relations, Johnny Chiang, whom the KMT nominated as their candidate for the Deputy Speaker, has served on the Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee for over ten years. In a November 2023 interview, Chiang also referred to the Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee as the one where bipartisan consensus is most likely.
As the chairman of KMT, Chiang also sought to raise the international profile of his party. He reinstated the International Affairs Department and held high-profile engagements with EU diplomats to showcase the KMT’s readiness to participate in the process of diversifying Taiwan’s international relations.
If Chiang is put in charge of overseeing the Legislative Yuan’s international outreach, he will be able to capitalize on his robust experience to bridge cross-partisan consensus and enhance the global visibility of Taiwan. Yet, it is still concerning that parliamentary diplomacy would be relegated to the responsibility of the Deputy Speaker, lowering the profile of these critical engagements.
If the incoming Speaker of the Legislative Yuan is unwilling to further enhance political connections with Europeans, they could severely undermine the progress achieved to date. While discreet relations between mid-level governmental officials may continue, the political significance lies in high-profile parliamentary interactions, as legislative leaders often involve other crucial officials within their delegations. They also invite with them the eyes of the world, which Taiwan could leverage to its own advantage.
- Marcin Jerzewski 葉皓勤 is the Head of Taiwan Office at the European Values Center for Security Policy, a Prague-based think tank.
- Jakub Janda 楊雅嚳 is the Executive Director of the European Values Center for Security Policy.