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EU Ursula

Virtual EU-China Summit

22 June 2020

The first summit on 22 June between the new EU leadership team of Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel with China’s President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang was a virtual affair because of the Covid-19 pandemic. There was no joint statement and no joint press conference.

Instead the EU issues a lengthy statement recounting its side of events. The EU side accepted that EU –China relations ‘were crucial in many areas’ but at the same time, ‘we have to recognise that we do not share the same values, political systems, or approach to multilateralism.’ For our relations to develop further, ‘they must become more rules-based and reciprocal, in order to achieve a real level playing-field.’

Foe the EU a key indicator will be progress on the long-running negotiations on an investment agreement. Whether the investment agreement will now be finalised this year is an open question. The pandemic has not helped the negotiating process although some progress has been made by video conference, including a deal on geographical indications.

But if China does not accept the principle of reciprocity, end industrial subsidies and the practice of enforced technology transfer then the barriers would go up. The Commission had already shown it means business by presenting new proposals to tackle unfair subsidies and block predatory take-overs of companies by third countries.

Apart from the slow progress on the trade talks, von der Leyen made clear that the EU has also been irritated by China’s disinformation and propaganda efforts connected with the coronavirus outbreak, cyber-attacks, the treatment of the Uighurs plus the proposed imposition of a national security law on Hong Kong. The new security law was a matter of ‘grave concern’ and did not conform to China’s international commitments. The proposed measures ‘had weakened trust in China’ although the EU side stopped short of threatening specific action.

There were some more positive tones. There was agreement on the need to cooperate in global efforts to stop the spread of the Covid-19 virus, share test results and vaccines. Both sides should work together on the global recovery plan and help developing countries, notably as regard debt relief. The EU also called on China to fully participate in the independent WHO review of lessons learned from the pandemic.

Cooperation in regional security (Iran, Afghanistan and Korea) was praised along with Chinese efforts on climate change. The EU team emphasised the need to work together on the global economy based on sustainable development. China needed to improve energy efficiency, reduce its dependence on coal and step up to the plate on climate change commitments. It should set a goal for climate neutrality at the earliest possible date.

The EU also stressed the importance of freedom and privacy with regard to digital technology. 5G suppliers would have to respect very clear rules.

Under pressure from the European Parliament, the EU also expressed concern at the deteriorating human rights situation, including the high-profile cases of the Swedish citizen Gui Minhai and two Canadian citizens – Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.

The Chinese commentary after the summit sought to emphasise the areas of cooperation rather than confrontation. The official news agency Xinhua quoted Xi stating that ‘since the COVID-19 outbreak, China and the EU have supported and helped each other. The two sides were partners not rivals. Cooperation far outweighs competition, and consensus far outweighs disagreement.’