The Irish Times view on the EU-China investment treaty: what price a trade deal?

EU “strategic autonomy” has been central to the European response to Donald Trump’s go-it-alone diplomacy

French president Emmanuel Macron attends an EU-China video-conference along with Chinese president Xi Jinping, German chancellor Angela Merkel, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and president of the European Council Charles Michel, at the Fort de Bregancon in Bormes-les-Mimosas, southern France on Wednesday. Photograph: Sebastien Nogier, Pool via AP

French president Emmanuel Macron attends an EU-China video-conference along with Chinese president Xi Jinping, German chancellor Angela Merkel, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and president of the European Council Charles Michel, at the Fort de Bregancon in Bormes-les-Mimosas, southern France on Wednesday. Photograph: Sebastien Nogier, Pool via AP

 

The imperative of EU “strategic autonomy” has been central to the European response to Donald Trump’s go-it-alone diplomacy, not least the US’s hawkish relationship with China. It is epitomised in a major end-of-year agreement on investment, the China-EU Comprehensive Agreement, brokered by the commission and the German presidency .

But the deal, which will remove some Chinese investment barriers to EU business, such as specific joint-venture requirements and caps on foreign equity, raise subsidy transparency, and set rules against forced technology transfers, is described by critics as a significant diplomatic coup for Beijing and a slap in the face to US president-elect Joe Biden, whose national security adviser appealed to the bloc to hold off on signing.

Many of China’s concessions to the EU have already been granted to the US, part of its own “phase-one” trade deal which it signed without consulting allies. EU businesses have also been bridling at what they see as US double standards – constrained by US sanctions from selling national-security-sensitive products, big EU companies have seen US rivals given exemptions from the embargo for precisely the same goods.

The commission’s view that commitments in the deal to “work towards” enforcing international conventions on labour standards is a step in the right direction, and significantly better than no deal, is regarded as weak. Not least because Beijing has a history of making and not adhering to similar promises – in Hong Kong over civic rights, in Xinjiang over slave labour, in its island-building in the South China Sea, or when it joined the World Trade Organisation in 2001, pledging to rein in state subsidies.

MEPs are adamant they do not regard labour and environmental standards as added extras, but central to their aspiration that trade deals extend beyond simple economics to be levers of social and political change. The dilemma for the EU, however, is that setting too high a bar may make any deal with China impossible. The perfect becomes the enemy of the incremental good.

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