EU to get China investment deal despite rights worries

Photo: Xinhua
  • Agence France-Presse
  • December 30, 2020 2:44 AM

Brussels, Belgium | The European Union on Tuesday geared up to agree a major investment deal with China, despite warnings from lawmakers over Beijing's record on civil and labour rights. 

EU and Chinese leaders are expected to strike an accord in principle on the pact, which Brussels hopes will open up lucrative business opportunities, on Wednesday after seven years of negotiations. 

Europe has long pressed for greater access for its firms to the huge Chinese markets, but Beijing's alleged lack of respect for international labour standards had remained a final hurdle to an agreement.

An EU official said the bloc had got China to commit to efforts to ratify the International Labour Organization's conventions on forced labour -- but there appears little way to ensure it makes good on the vow. 

European legislators lashed out at an agreement that they said was being rushed through by leading economic power Germany, before its rotating EU presidency ends at the end of the year. 

"China's leadership does not recognise that it uses forced labour, so it's just words," French MEP Raphael Glucksmann told AFP.

The European Parliament -- which must approve any agreement -- last week condemned Beijing for its "government-led system of forced labour" targeting the Uighur minority in Xinjiang province.

"The stories coming out of Xinjiang are pure horror. The story in Brussels is we're ready to sign an investment treaty with China," Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt wrote on Twitter.  

"Under these circumstances any Chinese signature on human rights is not worth the paper it is written on."

The EU has intensified its hunt for a deal with China in recent months despite widespread concerns over Beijing's treatment of the Uighurs and crackdown on Hong Kong.  

The bloc highlighted those worries Tuesday by demanding China immediately release citizen journalist Zhang Zhan, jailed for four years over reporting on the coronavirus pandemic, and 12 Hong Kong activists detained at sea trying to flee the territory. 

- Before Biden? -

China pushed past the United States in the third quarter of this year to become the EU's top trade partner, as the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted the US economy while Chinese activity rebounded.

The deal -- which will still require months to be finalised and fully ratified -- would be a major boost for both sides and strengthen economic ties before the arrival of US President-elect Joe Biden in the White House in January.

Outgoing US leader Donald Trump has engaged in a trade war with China but his successor has also expressed concern about the EU outreach, with his team urging Brussels to consult with Washington.

The EU insists its softer approach to China -- which its member states view as a "systemic rival" -- will not hamper its relations with the new administration. 

The bloc says the deal helps rectify what it sees as the long-standing imbalance in the way Brussels and Beijing treat investors and the access they allow them. 

It also insists it secures guarantees from China on key European bugbears by ending obligations to transfer technology, reinforcing respect for intellectual property, strengthening Beijing's environmental commitments and addressing state subsidies. 

While the deal should pave the way for EU firms to make inroads in areas including China's electric car, health, and telecoms sectors, it also looks set to open up Europe's renewable energy market to Beijing.

But an EU official said that the agreement would still allow individual member states to block access for Chinese firms on national security grounds. 

© Agence France-Presse

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