The once warm relations between the European Union and China have deteriorated sharply, punctuated by a series of tit-for-tat sanctions imposed by Beijing and Brussels.
Just three months after the signing of a landmark economic treaty by China and the EU, the 27 EU foreign ministers last week announced sanctions against officials implicated in China’s mistreatment of its ethnic Uyghur minority in its northwestern region of Xinjiang.
Hours later, Beijing retaliated with its own sanctions against 10 people from the EU and four entities, including five members of the European Parliament, or MEPs.
While US-China relations have deteriorated in recent years, European countries have enjoyed a much smoother ride. After years of negotiations, Beijing and Brussels finally reached an agreement to liberalize trade between them in the last days of December.
This breakthrough was made possible thanks to last-minute concessions from Chinese President Xi Jinping and pressure from German officials. The agreement, which remains subject to the approval of the European Parliament, would guarantee European investors better access to the fast-growing Chinese market and will be able to compete on an equal footing in that country.
Until recently, this trend seemed to continue. According to data released by Eurostat on March 18, EU exports to China totaled 16.1 billion euros ($ 19 billion) in January, an increase of 6.6% year-on-year. the other.
The momentum is now reversed, with tit-for-tat sanctions and the boycott of European brands encouraged by Beijing.
“These are the first EU sanctions against China on human rights issues since the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989,” said Grzegorz Stec, expert at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Germany , one of the four entities sanctioned by China.
Stec told VOA that the EU had imposed sanctions on China for other reasons, including a ruling against two Chinese for cyberattacks last year. But this time, he said, “the EU made it clear that this was due to the human rights issue. China clearly regards this issue as China’s internal affair, and against them. – China’s measures are unprecedented. “
Among those sanctioned by China, there are five MEPs.
Raphael Glucksmann, a French MEP and longtime French human rights defender, said he saw the Chinese action, which includes the ban on visits to the country, as recognition of his advocacy for the rights of Uyghurs. After his election in 2019, Glucksmann was widely quoted as saying his goal was to become “the voice of the voiceless”.
“Fortunately, we’ve been working hard to bring public attention to this issue, which is why they (China) are mad at me,” Glucksmann told VOA.
He pointed out that in addition to individuals, China has sanctioned the parliament’s human rights subcommittee. “It is a sanction against the democratic institution of Parliament”.
Shortly after Glucksmann was blacklisted by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, he came under attack on Chinese social media. In solidarity with the lawmaker, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian met with Glucksmann last week and tweeted: “On the human rights violations documented in Xinjiang, France’s position is closed.”
Another sanctioned parliamentarian, Ilhan Kyuchyuk of Bulgaria, told VOA in an email that the EU’s sanctions against China are based on strong legal evidence.
“Our relationship with China is very important. It is a strategic relationship because we are both key players on the world stage. However, we cannot remain silent when it is obvious what is happening to the Uyghurs and the other minorities. “
Kyuchyuk said the EU “will continue to voice concerns about freedom of expression and association, including the situation of persons belonging to minorities.”
Michael Gahler, the foreign policy coordinator and spokesperson for the European People’s Party, the largest political party in the European Parliament, told VOA he suspected he had been included in the sanctions because of his role as chairman of the Taiwan Chamber Friendship Group. The German politician said the future dialogue between the EU and China will be “more difficult and cumbersome”.
Gahler pointed out that the Mercartor Institute, one of Europe’s most respected research institutes, is also on the sanctions list. He said in an email that this should be taken into consideration by all universities and think tanks that are co-funded by the Chinese state through Confucius Institutes or Chinese companies.
“Academic freedom is for all or none,” he said. “Those who engage in appeasement are also responsible.”
Slovak MEP Miriam Lexmann said she believed “credible reports show that (the Chinese Communist Party’s) actions meet all the criteria for genocide under the 1949 Genocide Convention.”
Lexmann, also on the Chinese sanctions list, accused China of engaging “in threats and counter-sanctions against those, especially democratically elected parliamentarians, who seek to raise awareness of these terrible human rights violations.
“If China continues with this kind of response, it will make it clear that it is not interested in being a partner but a systematic rival that undermines the core values and principles that are a ‘condicio sine qua non’ for any cooperation.” Lexmann said in an email.
It took seven years and 35 rounds of negotiations to negotiate the comprehensive EU-China investment agreement. Today, a few months later, its ratification by the European Parliament is in doubt because of the tit-for-tat sanctions.
The deal was due to be reviewed and implemented this year, but three of the main political parties in parliament have said that as long as the sanctions remain in place, parliament will even refuse to open the debate for ratification.
“The lifting of sanctions against MEPs is a precondition for us to start talks with the Chinese government on the investment deal,” said Kathleen van Brempt, an MEP from the Left Socialist and Democrat Group.
Glucksmann, one of the EU’s most effective activists on the Uyghur issue, said he believes it is time for China to pay a price.
“What we need to do is make it clear that we will not vote on the China-Europe investment agreement while the sanctions are in effect,” Glucksmann said in a telephone interview.
Stec, founder of the Brussels-based nonprofit “EU-China Hub”, said Beijing might not believe the diplomatic turmoil will reverse the deal’s gains.
Eyck Freymann, an expert on China at the University of Oxford, said last week was more a political turning point than an economic one. “China and Europe remain deeply integrated in trade, and this relationship will not collapse overnight if it ever does,” he told VOA.
The author of the book One Belt One Road: Chinese power meets the worldFreymann pointed out that there are still powerful interest groups in Europe who wish to maintain good relations with China.
However, he said, “as long as human rights are high on the agenda, the China-Europe economic relationship cannot deepen or widen.”
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