China and the EU – “rien ne va plus”

by Frank Schwalba-Hoth

The recent investment treaty between the EU and CHINA (CAI) has been put in a sort of “fridge” – that was just decided by the European Parliament. How and why have we arrived at that dead-end street? One cannot avoid seeing a revival of a Shakespearean drama in five acts.

1. Birth of an ambitious project

In 2013, an investment deal between China and the EU was proposed: the CAI (Comprehensive Agreement on Investment). This year, the representatives from the two sides finally signed it. Parallel to this signing, the EU was continuing its other work – following their legislation (EU-Regulation 2020/1998) concerning restrictive measures against serious human rights violations and abuses (based on international – especially UN – standards outlined in dozens of conventions).

This meant concretely that the EU adopted the EU-Regulation 2021/478 and applied sanctions against individuals and entities in China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Libya, Eritrea, South Sudan and Russia (important: not against those countries, but against persons and entities!). In the case of China, a “soft approach” was decided: no sanctions against anyone in Beijing and not even against Chen Quanguo, the Head of the Communist Party in Xinjiang, but only against four persons of local importance.

2. An unexpected answer

Apparently, that message of a “soft approach” was not interpreted appropriately in Beijing. On 22 March, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson announced sanctions against one Belgian, one Dutch and one Lithuanian MP, a German and a Swedish scholar plus a Danish and German think tank – if the list would have finished here, that would have been a possibly expected reaction.

However, a sort of bazooka was taken and nearly hundred personalities from Brussels were added as well: five members of the European Parliament (MEPs), the more than 50 Members of the EP Human Rights Subcommittee and the 27 EU-Ambassadors of the 27 Members States (the “Political and Security Committee of the Council of the European Union”). An additional patriarchal  warning was sent (in the tone of a teacher who intends to educate undisciplined pupils): “The Chinese side urges the EU side to reflect on itself, face squarely the severity of its mistake and redress it. It must stop lecturing others (…) and stop going further down the wrong path. Otherwise, China will resolutely make further reactions.”

3. Need of a double approval

International treaties like the “EU-China CAI” need in general two distinct steps to enter into force. It starts with an official festive signing, following rules of protocol and then the second step: approval by the parliament as legitimate representatives of the people. In China no problem: if the government signs, no other institution would contradict. In the EU, it is different and therefore more complicated: the EP with its 705 MEPs from some 200 political parties is a quite independent body and would never “copy-paste” any decision from other EU institutions. By having seen the blacklisting of nearly 10% of the MEPs (including the influential President of the official EU-China Delegation), the whole of the EP was outraged.

4. Solidarity

The broad majority of MEPs expressed their solidarity with their banned colleagues, all EU Member States (including those countries, as the Czech Republic, Greece and Hungary, which carry the label “China-friendly”) criticized the disproportionality of the Chinese answer.

The whole of Brussels was flabbergasted. Why is the Chinese government so overreacting? We decided a soft sanction against four second-hands, avoiding criticising the government and its top representatives directly- and the Chinese answered with a sort of “burned earth”. Chinese experts (from the EU and China) were consulted and the following interpretation emerged more and more: yes, the Brussels-based Chinese diplomats know quite well that it would be totally counterproductive to focus on the 27 Ambassadors of the 27 EU Member States and – especially – on those key MEPs, who are needed for a (positive) vote on the EU-China CAI. The top-top deciders in Beijing are not aware that the CAI still needed a vote in the EP and that EP would be able to block the EU-China CAI – or even put it in the dustbin. As it is Chinese (political) culture to avoid contradicting your superior, middle ranking Beijing-based diplomats had avoided to raise their voice and to warn that such a concentration of Brussels representatives might end as a death penalty for the EU-China CAI.

Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy , this renowned Chinese-speaking researcher summed it all up: “So why did Beijing this time choose to retaliate in such a disproportionate and counterproductive manner, against the very lawmakers who are vital to the future of an investment agreement it claimed to badly want? What has Beijing identified as sufficient gain that it sees merit in risking the loss of the CAI?

5. Pre-Funeral

On Thursday, 29 April 2021, the “Conference of the Presidents” met at 10.00. This body, acting as a sort of “EP- Politburo”, is the non-public bi-monthly meeting of the EP President with the Presidents of the seven political groups of the EP. They are among other things responsible for the organisation of EP’s legislative planning and the relations with non-EU countries. Unlike former politburos, their minutes are printed and distributed. The public (and therefore as well the Chinese government) will therefore learn officially in the next days, that the EU-China CAI will not be put on the agenda of the EP Plenary and that all are waiting for a more appropriate moment. This means concretely: EU-China CAI has been placed in the freezer. The (up to now) final point of an unnecessary degradation of a promising political springtime.