Deal may not be ratified after concerns over human rights abuses
Fianna Fáil’s Barry Andrews has joined other MEPs to question whether the European Parliament should sign off on a trade deal with China’s government amid human rights concerns.
The EU Commission says the deal, agreed in principle in December, will open up China’s economy in protected sectors such as energy, transport, healthcare and telecoms.
However, a cross-section of MEPs in Brussels have questioning the wisdom of the EU signing the investment deal, which has to be ratified by the European parliament.
It will take at least a year before EU parliamentarians vote on the deal. EU trade ministers also need to scrutinise the text, but under EU law, the agreement doesn’t have to be ratified by national parliaments.
In Brussels, the arrest of more than 50 Hong Kong politicians and activists this week, alongside China’s refusal to allow in a WHO Covid-19 delegation, have galvanised those already concerned at Beijing’s treatment of its Uyghur population, Taiwan and Tibet.
German Green MEP Reinhard Bütikofer says the European Parliament will be a “hurdle” or maybe even a “wall” in any future political debate over the deal.
Socialist deputy Bernd Lange, also from Germany, said the actions marked “a violation of the spirit” of the EU-China deal.
Former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt – who sits with Fianna Fáil in the European Parliament’s ‘Renew’ political grouping – said that MEPs “will never ratify” the deal without further “commitments and proof” on human rights.
And Ireland is pressing its own human rights issue.
Mr Andrews is pleading with EU trade and diplomatic officials to intervene in the case of Irish businessman Richard O’Halloran, who is being held in China without charge.
Mr O’Halloran has been refused exit for almost two years after appearing as a witness in a case involving the Chinese head of his company, China International Aviation Leasing Service.
“It’s really surprising that we should be signing an investment agreement when an EU citizen is being held without charges,” Mr Andrews told the Irish Independent. “Should we not be asking for an amnesty for EU citizens?”
EU leaders – including the German chancellor and French president – signed the investment deal in a video meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping on December 30.
They say it’s a “values-based” partnership that will open the Chinese market to EU manufacturers of electric cars, chemicals, telecoms and health equipment.
It will also allow greater access for EU firms in cloud computing, financial services, private healthcare, environmental services, and air and maritime transport.
Ireland is the only EU member not to have a bilateral investment treaty with China but Enterprise Ireland says that over 300 Irish companies are already engaged with China, with exports worth around €1bn in 2017.
Chinese investment in Ireland is at record highs, jumping more than 50pc in 2019, according to analysis by law firm Baker McKenzie, despite a fall in Europe overall.
“The agreement is good from a business point of view,” Mr Andrews said. “Lots of Irish companies are looking at this with great interest.”
EU officials, meanwhile, are motivated by a drive to achieve “strategic autonomy” from the US that is rooted in the experience of the America First policy under Donald Trump.
The EU’s director-general for trade, Sabine Weyand, tweeted that she looked forward to engaging with the US, and that the China deal would “benefit other partners as well, and should act as a springboard for global disciplines”.
The EU has also pledged to pursue an investment deal with Taiwan, which Mr Andrews said could be used as “leverage” in any Chinese row.