EU, China Stumble Over Trade, Human Rights Ahead of Summit

April 5, 2019 Updated: April 5, 2019

BRUSSELS— Tensions over trade, investments and minority rights are preventing China and the EU from agreeing a joint declaration at a summit next week, multiple sources in Brussels said on April 5, sapping a European push for greater access to Chinese markets.

Alarmed by potential Chinese dominance of strategic European industries, EU leaders last month sought to prepare for the April 9 summit by agreeing what they said was a more assertive stance toward Beijing.

By diplomatic convention, joint statements are issued at the conclusion of high-profile bilateral summits to formalize policy.

Donald Tusk, the head of the European Council, has recommended rejecting the statement as it stands, according to an EU source. China had not met EU hopes that it would open its markets, nor seriously committed to reforms of global trade rules.

According to an early draft put forward by the European Union and seen by Reuters, Beijing would be bound into completing talks on an investment agreement and committing to remove what the EU says are unfair barriers to trade.

But Chinese officials have removed or changed many of those references, the EU diplomats said, raising the embarrassing probability of no communique at all after Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk have met.

Envoys for EU nations including Britain, Germany and France said they could not back the communique on the basis of China’s changes, an EU official said.

Other EU references to reassure Europeans that China is committed to confronting attacks by computer hackers and improving religious freedoms for the Muslim Uyghur minority are also proving very difficult, the diplomats said.

“We wanted to be clear on how we want to work with China, not issue a meaningless document,” a senior EU diplomat said.

Another said there would be no statement without a change in stance from Beijing.

The Chinese foreign ministry was not immediately available for comment. Vice Foreign Minister Wang Chao told reporters this week that both sides were working to reach a consensus.

Negotiations with the Chinese would continue until Tuesday.

Re-Evaluation

The intensification of EU diplomacy since March reflects frustration over China’s reluctance to allow foreign companies to set up there without restrictions while taking full advantage of the EU’s openness, EU diplomats say.

A surge of Chinese takeovers in critical sectors in Europe and an impression in Brussels that Beijing has not kept its promise to stand up for free trade and globalization have given the April meeting new urgency.

The EU-China relationship, which is bound by 1 billion euros ($1.12 billion) in daily trade, has survived previous spats, notably in 2016 and 2017 when differences over the South China Sea and trade meant there were no communiques.

However, after a collective re-evaluation of Chinese policy by EU leaders on March 21, the six-page April 9 statement was meant to coax Beijing into making good on trade promises.

By Robin Emmott & Philip Blenkinsop

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