Brussels seeks to win over criticism of EU-China deal

Brussels to reveal all the details of its controversy market access agreement with Chinabecause he seeks to advocate for a deal that has come under attack because of Beijing’s human rights record.

Businesses are eagerly awaiting what the deal – reached at the end of 2020 – offers EU companies operating in the Chinese market. Brussels sees it as a breakthrough which “will give European companies a major boost” and put them on an equal footing with their American rivals.

It will remove some barriers for EU companies wishing to invest in China. Sectors in which Brussels has obtained better access conditions include the automotive sector, private healthcare, cloud computing and ancillary services for air transport.

The publication of the technical annexes of the agreement should take place within a few days. This will be the prelude to what threatens to be fierce EU debates over ratifying a treaty that has been denounced by human rights defenders. Beijing’s crackdown on Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang and its suppression of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.

A coalition of 36 civil society organizations, including trade unions, wrote to EU leaders earlier this year to demand the reopening of the investment deal to add “enforceable human rights clauses “. However, Brussels argues that it has already secured unprecedented commitments.

Supporters of the deal, such as French President Emmanuel Macron, said it would give the EU leverage to pressure China on human rights issues, and the bloc would be vigilant to ensure that Beijing complies with labor standards provisions.

This message was echoed last week by French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who declared that “our trade partnership will not be built on a disregard for human rights, and we will be particularly attentive to it” .

But MEPs have warned that approval of the deal by the European Parliament – a key ratification step expected in early 2022 – is not assured. This will depend on whether the EU adds to the arsenal of measures it has to tackle human rights violations and unfair trade practices.

“We stand up for our principles and we need all measures to stand up for our principles,” said Inma Rodríguez-Piñero, senior MEP on Chinese trade issues for the big center-left bloc in parliament. Speaking to the Financial Times, she also warned that China must provide a “clear road map” for the implementation of International Labor Organization conventions against the use of forced labor.

China agreed in the investment treaty with the EU to “make continuous and sustained efforts” to adopt the conventions.

Rodríguez-Piñero’s warnings closely resemble those of Iuliu Winkler, senior MEP on China for the parliament’s trade committee and a member of the Assembly’s largest group, the center-right European People’s Party.

He noted that the agreement offered clear benefits to EU companies, but that “forced labor is prohibited, that is our message”.

In 2019, the European Commission describes China as a “negotiating partner with whom the EU must find a balance of interests, an economic competitor in the pursuit of technological leadership and a systemic rival”. But, after negotiating the deal on behalf of the EU, he insists he was not naive.

He stressed that the agreement “is the first time that China has accepted such ambitious provisions [on labour rights] with a business partner ”. Officials also cite Brussels’ recent success in pushing South Korea to honor ILO commitments in its trade deal with the EU as an example of what can be achieved.

Demonstrations in Brussels by members of the Uyghur Association of Belgium and Turkish civil society organizations © Dursun Aydemir / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The EU argues that it is clearly the winner of the deal when it comes to business benefits, and that the deal nonetheless increases the leverage of the block on China on human rights.

But critics insist that existing enforcement measures against China are too weak. Rodríguez-Piñero said she and other MEPs have a long list of priorities they want the EU to pursue “in terms of trade defense instruments, in terms of autonomous instruments, in terms of human rights. the man”.

They include the active use of a ‘global human rights sanctions regime’, approved by EU governments in December, this allows the bloc to collectively target state and non-state actors responsible for human rights violations, wherever they have occurred.

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On Wednesday, MEPs also formally called on the committee to push forward on draft legislation on business due diligence.

The planned rules would require companies to ensure that forced labor is not used in their supply chains – which is already in place in the United States and Canada.

Luisa Santos, deputy director general of BusinessEurope, an association representing EU employers, said companies supported the EU-China investment deal because it would help “correct the unbalanced situation we are currently experiencing on the market”.

But she said the companies were also backing the creation of new measures, legally separate from the agreement, to protect human rights and tackle market distortions.

“It will be more advantageous for Chinese interests if we abandon the agreement than the other way around,” she said. “But the agreement should not be the only tool in our bilateral relationship.”

For MEPs, the fate of the investment treaty may lie as much in the actions of the EU and China before the ratification vote as in the content of the agreement itself.

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