EU-China relations put to the test in virtual summit

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen (L) and the European Council President Charles Michel (R) are talking to media after an EU-China Summit on June 22, 2020 in Brussels, Belgium.

Thierry Monasse | Getty Images News | Getty Images

LONDON — EU and Chinese officials are meeting on Monday, but it will not be the pompous ceremony they had hoped for.

Both sides had planned to meet in Leipzig, Germany this month as they looked to sign an investment agreement before the end of 2020. However, with a global pandemic and little progress in their negotiations to date, the grand summit has been scaled down to a video call. 

“Trust is very thin,” Yu Jie, senior research fellow at Chatam House, told CNBC.

The EU and China have often clashed over human rights issues, trade and economic policy. In June, just days after meeting with European officials, China passed a new security law for Hong Kong that dented people’s ability to protest — a move that Europe had expressly opposed. 

We have to recognise that we do not share the same values, political systems, or approach to multilateralism.

Charles Michel

EU Council President

Meanwhile, in a recent trip to five European nations, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi was reminded of the EU’s opposition to Beijing’s attitude toward Hong Kong and Taiwan. In a joint press conference, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas publicly rebuked Wang for threatening a Czech politician over the latter’s recent trip to Taiwan.

In addition, the coronavirus pandemic, which emerged in China in late 2019, has complicated the two regions’ delicate relationship even further.

“We have to recognise that we do not share the same values, political systems, or approach to multilateralism,” Charles Michel, president of the European Council, said in June following a call with the Chinese President Xi Jinping.

No significant progress?

Both leaders will take stock of their investment negotiations, discuss climate change and their responses to the coronavirus on Monday. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will also participate.

However, experts doubt that there will be any major developments.

“I don’t think we will hear any significant progress,” Janka Oertel, Asia director at foreign policy think-tank the European Council on Foreign Relations, told CNBC.

The two sides started negotiations over an investment agreement back in 2014, which Europe hoped would ultimately grant easier access to the Chinese market for European investors.

The EU has argued that European companies working in China don’t enjoy similar levels of transparency and fair competition as those given to Chinese firms in the European Union. However, negotiators have not made significant progress on this issue and there are questions if they will reach a deal by the end of year, as had been planned.

Uncertainty over who will win the upcoming U.S. election, and a more sceptical EU stance toward China, were also hitting the EU-Sino talks, Oertel added.

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