Once-warm relations between the European Union and China have taken a sharp turn for the worse, punctuated by a series of tit-for-tat sanctions imposed by Beijing and Brussels.
Only three months after China and the EU struck a landmark economic treaty, the 27 foreign affairs ministers of the EU announced sanctions last week against officials involved in China’s mistreatment of its ethnic Uyghur minority in its northwest Xinjiang region.
Hours later, Beijing retaliated with its own sanctions on 10 EU individuals and four entities, including five members of the European Parliament, or MEPs.
While U.S.-China relations have declined in recent years, the European countries have enjoyed a much softer ride. After years of negotiations, Beijing and Brussels finally struck a deal aimed at liberalizing trade between them in the last days of December.
The breakthrough was made possible by last-minute concessions from Chinese President Xi Jinping and pushes from German officials. The deal, which remains subject to approval by the European Parliament, would ensure that European investors have better access to the fast-growing Chinese market and can compete on a more level playing field in that country.
Until recently, this trend seemed to continue. According to data released by Eurostat on March 18, EU exports to China totaled 16.1 billion euros ($19 billion) in January, an increase of 6.6% year-on-year.
The momentum is reversed now, however, with the tit-for-tat sanctions and a boycott of European brands being encouraged by Beijing.
“It is the EU’s first sanctions against China on human rights issues since the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989,” said Grzegorz Stec, an expert at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Germany, one of the four entities sanctioned by China.
Stec told VOA that the EU has imposed sanctions on China for other reasons, including a move against two Chinese people for cyberattacks last year. But this time, he said, “the EU made it clear that it was due to the human rights issue. China clearly regards this issue as China’s internal affair, and China’s countermeasures are unprecedented.”
Among the individuals being sanctioned by China are five MEPs.
Raphael Glucksmann, a French MEP and longtime French human rights advocate, said he sees the Chinese action, which includes a ban on visits to the country, as a recognition of his advocacy for Uyghur rights. After his election in 2019, Glucksmann was widely quoted as saying his goal was to become “the voice of the voiceless people.”
“Fortunately, we have worked hard to raise the public’s attention to this issue, which is why they (China) are angry with me,” Glucksmann told VOA.
He pointed out that in addition to individuals, China sanctioned the Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights. “It is a sanction on the democratic institution of the Parliament.”
Shortly after Glucksmann was put on the blacklist by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, he became the target of attacks on Chinese social media. In a show of solidarity with the legislator, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian met Glucksmann last week and tweeted: “On the documented human rights abuses in Xinjiang, France’s position is firm.”
Another sanctioned parliamentarian, Ilhan Kyuchyuk of Bulgaria, told VOA in an email that the EU sanctions on China are based on solid legal evidence.
“Our relation with China is very important. It is a strategic relationship because we both are key actors in global scene. However, we cannot remain silent when it is obvious what is happening to the Uyghurs and other minorities.”
Kyuchyuk said the EU “will continue to express concerns about freedom of expression and association, including the situation of persons belonging to minorities.”
Michael Gahler, the foreign policy coordinator and spokesperson of the European People’s Party, the largest political party in the European Parliament, told VOA that he suspected he had been included in the sanctions because of his role as chair of the chamber’s Taiwan friendship group. The German politician said future dialogue between the EU and China will be “more difficult and burdensome.”
Gahler pointed out that the Mercartor Institute, one of the most respected European research institutes, is also on the sanctions list. He said in an email that this should be taken into consideration by all the universities and think tanks that are co-financed by the Chinese state through Confucius Institutes or Chinese companies.
“Academic freedom is for all or none,” he said. “Those who engage in appeasement are also responsible.”
Slovakian MEP Miriam Lexmann said she believes that “credible reports show that the (Chinese Communist Party’s) actions fulfill all criteria of a genocide under the 1949 Genocide Convention.”
Lexmann, also on the Chinese sanctions list, accused China of engaging “in threats and countersanctions against those, especially democratically elected parliamentarians, who seek to raise awareness to these terrible human rights abuses.
“If China continues with this kind of response, it will make clear that it is not interested in being a partner but a systematic rival that undermines fundamental values and principles which are a ‘condicio sine qua non’ for any cooperation,” Lexmann said in an email.
It took seven years and 35 rounds of talks to negotiate the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment. Now, just months later, its ratification by the European Parliament is in doubt because of the tit-for-tat sanctions.
The agreement was scheduled to be reviewed and implemented this year, but three of the main political parties in the Parliament have said that as long as the sanctions remain in place, the Parliament will refuse to even open the debate for ratification.
“The lifting of sanctions against MEPs is a precondition for us to enter into talks with the Chinese government on the investment deal,” said Kathleen van Brempt, an MEP from the left-leaning Socialist and Democrats group.
Glucksmann, one of EU’s most effective activists on the Uyghur issue, said he believes it is time for China to pay a price.
“What we should do is to announce clearly that we won’t be voting on the China-Europe investment agreement as long as the sanctions are going on,” Glucksmann said in a telephone interview.
Stec, founder of the Brussels-based nonprofit platform “EU-China Hub,” said Beijing may not believe that the diplomatic turmoil will wipe out the achievements of the agreement.
Eyck Freymann, a China expert at Oxford University, said last week was more of a political turning point than an economic one. “China and Europe remain deeply integrated in trade, and this relationship will not unravel overnight — if it ever does,” he told VOA.
The author of the book One Belt One Road: Chinese Power Meets the World, Freymann pointed out that there are still powerful interest groups in Europe that want to maintain a good relationship with China.
However, he said, “As long as human rights is on the top of the agenda, the China-Europe economic relationship cannot deepen or broaden.”