EU’s China measures only ‘symbolic’

By Zhao Yusha Source: Global Times Published: 2020/7/14 22:33:40

Difficult for bloc to reach a consensus on China-related issues: observers

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) and European Parliament President David Sassoli attend a press conference at the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, July 8, 2020. (European Union/Handout via Xinhua)

 In what seemed more like a move to "walk through pressure from the US and the UK," the EU announced on Monday it would take countermeasures against China over the new national security law for Hong Kong. Observers believe members of the bloc, divergent in views and interests, would find it hard to reach consensus in practice.  

Even if implemented, those measures would only be symbolic, with no significant harm to Beijing, they said.  

The EU is preparing countermeasures against China in response to the national security law for Hong Kong, the bloc's top diplomat was quoted by Reuters as saying on Monday. 

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said nothing specific had been decided, but that EU foreign ministers had discussed extending the EU's export ban on "sensitive technology" to Hong Kong. "We have agreed today to develop a coordinated European Union response to show support for Hong Kong's autonomy and civil society," he told a news conference on Monday.

The idea of coming up with a coordinated decision from the bloc is likely from Germany, which just took over the rotating presidency of the European Council, and wants a unified stance toward the Hong Kong issue, and wants to stand together to face outside pressure from the US and the UK, Sun Keqin, a research fellow at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, told the Global Times.

But experts agreed that it is difficult for this bloc, with each member having its own interests in relation to China or the US, and having different views on issues about Hong Kong, to reach a consensus on whether to impose heavy sanctions on China. 

Divergences among the members will emerge, especially when they talk about specific measures against China, said Shi Yinhong, a professor of International Relations and Chairman of the Academic Committee of the School of International Studies, noting some EU members will be concerned if sanctions on China will have a negative influence on their cooperation with Beijing. 

Reuters reported said that tough measures were not being discussed in detail because of resistance from members like Hungary and Greece.

Sun explained that some members within the bloc, including Sweden, which frequently used issues such as "human rights" against China, will likely exert pressure to push the bloc to be tough on China. 

Sweden said on Monday that it supports Franco-German efforts for a robust response to China's new national security law for Hong Kong, joining Denmark and the Netherlands in pushing the European Union to consider countermeasures against Beijing.

Germany and France, the most influential members of the bloc, have always sought to strike a balance on issues involving China. On one hand, they echo the US and other Western countries, as they share some ideological values; on the other hand, they also prioritize practical policies and economic benefits, and won't go against China on core issues, and hurt their cooperation, Sun said. 

He pointed out Germany, in particular, shares with China an overarching exchange system on human rights issues, which both countries recognize. As key discussions on an EU-China investment agreement near, it is unnecessary for Germany to act as a prominent opponent of China.

"Both Germany and France know that the Hong Kong issue will become a burden for them if they interfere too much," Sun said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Monday that the new national security law for Hong Kong is no reason for the European Union to sever dialogue with China.

"It is important that EU member states are trying to find a common policy toward China and a common answer," Merkel said during a news conference with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.

Apart from an export ban on "sensitive technology" to Hong Kong, Borrell said EU governments could also review their extradition agreements with Hong Kong, review travel advice, increase scholarships for Hong Kong students and offer more visas to Hongkongers.

The bloc's envoys stressed the likely steps will not amount to economic sanctions.

This is probably as far as the EU could go on sanctioning China. That's because the bloc rarely has any leverage over Hong Kong, said Shi, noting that Hong Kong is not a major conflict point between the EU and China, as the city "has many economic representative offices in all EU countries, and the EU also has vast economic interests in this city… That's why the bloc agreed to sanctions, if issues won't touch on the economic level."

The measures, if put into practice, are mostly symbolic, said Sun, noting that the bloc's visa relaxation for Hong Kong residents, or ban of "sensitive technology" copied the US and other Five Eyes intelligence alliance members, and the EU knows those measures won't significantly harm Hong Kong or the Chinese mainland. 

The EU is now gradually realizing the importance of the bloc's strategic independence, as it has seen that it only has itself to rely on when attacked by non-traditional security issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic, without assistance from the US, according to Wang Yiwei,  a professor at the School of International Relations at Renmin University of China.

The bloc is encountering friction with the US, as the latter forced EU countries to take sides when it initiated a trade war with China, and the gap widened as EU members challenged the US on multilateral agreements, Washington's handling of COVID-19, and dealing with racial riots, Wang noted. 

A March poll conducted by the US-based think tank Pew Research Center and the K?rber Foundation found that 64 percent of Germans considered the relationship between the two countries to be bad in 2019, although that represented a small improvement from the 2018 figure of 73 percent. The poll suggested that negative feelings toward the US in Germany are growing quickly in the pandemic era, which also indicated a shift in public opinion toward Beijing.

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