EU-China: Human Rights Only Come Second for Conservatives

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Largely unnoticed by the public – Brexit had been the dominant topic at the turn of the year – the EU Commission concluded negotiations on an investment agreement with the People’s Republic of China shortly before New Year’s Eve. The driving force behind the trade agreement, which largely excludes questions about Chinese human rights violations, was the German government. At the beginning of the German EU Presidency in the summer of 2020, Angela Merkel announced that the EU had a great strategic interest in “actively shaping cooperation with China, one of the key players of this century.”

The “EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment” (CAI) has three main focuses: First, European companies shall get better market access in China. In addition, a level playing field is to be established for investments; Chinese state-owned enterprises are no longer to enjoy preferential treatment. In addition, for the first time, the People’s Republic has agreed to non-binding standards on environmental, climate and labour protection. Apart from the exclusion of human rights violations, this is where most criticism has been voiced: even the European Employers’ Confederation states that China’s exploitative system will not change structurally with the agreement. The People’s Republic can fall back on the weak wording that it is “seeking accession to the International Convention against Forced Labour”, but without being more specific.

Liberals are Critical of the Agreement

Liberals across Europe are therefore critical of the negotiated agreement. ” It was recently revealed that more than half a million Uyghurs are subjected to forced labour in the cotton harvest,” said FDP MEP Svenja Hahn MEP to ARD’s Tagesthemen. “That is why an investment agreement cannot be concluded if it does not contain clear commitments to, in particular, the ban on forced labour.” The European Parliament, in which, however, the conservative EPP party family is the largest force, still has to approve the agreement. This is why FDP MP Gyde Jensen, Chair of the Human Rights Committee in the German Bundestag, also appealed to the European parliamentarians: “Please let European values be clear and a ban on forced labour be fixed before you agree to the agreement.”

Flemish MEP and former Prime Minister of Belgium Guy Verhofstadt was also clear: “The stories coming out of Xinjiang are pure horror. The story in Brussels is we’re ready to sign an investment treaty with China,” Verhofstadt said. “Under these circumstances any Chinese signature on human rights is not worth the paper it is written on!”

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Hans van Baalen, president of the European liberal party ALDE, pointed out in this context the implications for the transatlantic relationship: “The preliminary agreement is hasty,” van Baalen said. The EU and the new US administration under President Joe Biden should coordinate on this immediately after the swearing-in on 20 January. “Moreover, the ratification of the EU-China investment agreement should be accompanied by a bilateral EU investment agreement with Taiwan,” van Baalen said. It is an open secret in Brussels that a US President Biden, together with the Europeans, wants to put more pressure on China; not least to breathe new life into the battered transatlantic relationship.

Will Macron Still Put the Human Rights Situation on the Agenda?

The only hope is a rumoured deal between Berlin and Paris. At the press conference announcing the agreement, the President of China, Xi Jinping, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the Council, Charles Michel, and Angela Merkel, representing the 27 EU member states, were joined by the President of France, Emmanuel Macron – an unusual protocol. Macron, whose party “En Marche” in the European Parliament also belongs to the liberal group, takes a more critical stance on China’s human rights violations. The liberal French Foreign Trade Minister Franck Riester, for example, said days earlier that France and Europe were determined “to ensure more justice and more fairness in globalisation and to defend our values.”

Based on these indications, observers in Brussels assume the following scenario: France conceded to the Chancellor to announce the political agreement with China at the end of her Council Presidency, while the text of the treaty will then be worked on by Parliament and the Council and will not be signed in a binding manner until about a year from now, i.e. at the beginning of 2022. The EU Council Presidency will then be held by… France!

Markus Kaiser

Head of Unit Europe at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom. From 2012 to 2019, he worked in the Foundation’s office in Brussels.