China’s EU deal set for the freezer, as parliament heads for crunch vote

·5-min read

The European Parliament will vote to halt any discussion of the EU’s investment deal with China until Beijing lifts the sanctions it imposed on European individuals and entities in March.

A vote will be held on Thursday morning with the backing of all the major groupings in the parliament, sources within the parties said.

A joint motion seen by the South China Morning Post dated May 18, was supported by all major parties, including the European People’s Party (EPP), a centre-right, pro-business grouping which had previously been on the fence about rejecting the deal.

Do you have questions about the biggest topics and trends from around the world? Get the answers with SCMP Knowledge, our new platform of curated content with explainers, FAQs, analyses and infographics brought to you by our award-winning team.

The text shows the rejection of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) as part of a broad package of resolutions aimed at hitting back at China on human rights and political issues.

These include the crackdown in Hong Kong, “crimes against humanity” in Xinjiang, the detention of European citizens like Hong Kong-Swedish bookseller Gui Minhai, the spreading of “disinformation in public debates” and muzzling academic freedom in Europe by sanctioning researchers.

The motion says “any discussion on ratification by the European Parliament, have justifiably been frozen because the Chinese sanctions are in place”, adding that Beijing must “lift the sanctions before dealing with CAI, without prejudice to the final outcome of the CAI ratification process”.

It also demands the commission “use the debate around CAI as a leverage instrument to improve the protection of human rights and support for civil society in China”. It was first reported by Politico.

China bit back at the parliament’s plans on Wednesday, with foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian saying “EU politicians who have long been involved in Xinjiang-related lies, false information and personnel sanctions are in line with their own interests”.

“The CAI is a balanced, mutually beneficial and win-win agreement. It is not a gift from one party to the other, but is mutually beneficial. Early approval is in the interests of both parties,” he said, adding that he hoped “the EU will deeply reflect and stop interfering in China’s internal affairs”.

European Commission seals deal for 1.8 billion more BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine doses

European Commission figures, speaking privately about the deal after it was reached in December, were keen to separate the commercial aspects from those of human rights. Brussels had come in for criticism over perceived weak labour chapters in the face of allegations of widespread forced labour in the Western Chinese region of Xinjiang.

Sources are confident the package will pass through parliament.

“We support the final outcome – as we’ve said before, as long as sanctions are there, CAI is off the table,” said a source within the EPP, which co-signed the lengthy joint motion.

Bernd Lange, the Socialists and Democrats Group’s chair of the parliament’s trade committee, said the deal was unlikely to be “unfrozen” until the EU had rolled out other legislation to help “level the playing field” for EU businesses in China.

“I’m totally convinced that the freeze will not be open before all the elements will be in force or near to force, so that this overall package is ready,” he said, adding that the package showed “the expression of values is now really a cross-party issue”.

China last year sentenced Hong Kong-Swedish bookseller Gui Minhai to 10 years in prison. Photo: Handout
China last year sentenced Hong Kong-Swedish bookseller Gui Minhai to 10 years in prison. Photo: Handout

The CAI was concluded on the last day of Germany’s presidency of the EU Council on December 30, at a ceremony involving the leaders of China, France and Germany.

It continues to be processed technically – translation and legal scrubbing are under way. The original plan was to send it to parliament and the EU Council – the leaders of the 27 member states – for ratification in 2022.

But those plans appear to be dead: it has been largely downhill since January. Some member states felt blindsided by a deal they felt was rushed through without due consultation, with Belgium and Poland both lodging complaints on this front.

It captured the imagination of activists at a time when images of detained Uygurs in Xinjiang were being beamed across Europe and when businesses were coming under severe pressure to cut cotton and other Xinjiang products out of their supply chains.

As Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong intensified in January, diplomats speaking privately about the deal said they felt it like “a slap in the face”, as it came just a week after Chinese President Xi Jinping had taken the online stage with his counterparts Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron in a show of strength for multilateralism.

China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian says he hopes the EU will “stop interfering in China’s internal affairs”. Photo: AP
China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian says he hopes the EU will “stop interfering in China’s internal affairs”. Photo: AP

But the straw that broke the camel’s back were the retaliatory sanctions issued in March, which came following the EU’s first sanctions on China since the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. Scores of MEPs vowed to block the deal’s passage in parliament, with major groups eventually agreeing on the text of this passage on Tuesday evening.

While Brussels’ top officials have been unable to whip all 27 members to issue statements and conclusions on Hong Kong due to Hungary’s successive blocking, parliamentarians have taken measures into their own hands.

The package “reaffirms that fundamental freedoms, freedom of expression, free participation in decision-making processes, academic freedom and the defence of human rights are pillars of our democracies and that these values will never be compromised in EU-China relations”.

The text adds that “intimidation attempts are futile and that, as elected Members of the European Parliament, we will continue to actively and unabatedly denounce and work on human rights violations and breaches of international law”.

“The vote is Thursday, but it looks as if we got a majority in parliament behind our demand not to start debating the CAI as long as we are under sanctions by China,” said Hannah Neumann, a Green Party MEP who was sanctioned as vice-chair of the subcommittee on human rights.

“Human rights and democracy are valued more than any potential economic benefit. At least in this case,” she said.

Additional reporting by Catherine Wong

More from South China Morning Post:

This article China’s EU deal set for the freezer, as parliament heads for crunch vote first appeared on South China Morning Post

For the latest news from the South China Morning Post download our mobile app. Copyright 2021.