After the historic trade agreement with Great Britain, the EU Commission could directly agree on the next important contract: The talks with China about an investment protection agreement are apparently about to be concluded after seven years. On Monday, the Commission informed the EU ambassadors of the 27 member states in Brussels about progress in the negotiations, including on the controversial issue of workers’ rights in China.
The ambassadors welcomed this, said an EU diplomat, and no state had given a stop signal. That is why the Council Presidency – until New Year’s Eve it will be Germany – stated at the end of the meeting that “the way for political support was paved”.
A spokeswoman for the EU Commission emphasized, however, that the negotiations with China have not yet been concluded. However, guidelines on employee rights were the last major point of contention. The EU only wants to sign the treaty, which is supposed to offer easier market access and more security for investors, if China undertakes to respect fundamental rights. Independent trade unions must be allowed, while forced labor should be prohibited.
An agreement could still be reached during the German Council Presidency
Bernd Lange, the chairman of the trade committee in the European Parliament, said the Süddeutsche ZeitungChina has “probably moved a lot” here. The subject is important to the parliamentarians: “If the European Parliament gets a treaty for approval, we will look very carefully whether China complies with the requirements and how they are controlled,” promises the SPD MEP.
Forced labor is a sensitive issue as critics accuse Beijing of using Uyghurs – an oppressed minority – as slave labor. When the EU ambassadors discussed the status of the negotiations a week and a half ago, some diplomats therefore emphasized how important the regulations on employee protection were to them.
“Apparently Beijing wants a degree quickly”
The fact that all 27 ambassadors were overall satisfied with Beijing’s concessions on Monday is therefore a significant step towards the conclusion of the contract. That would also be a success for the federal government. It is their declared aim to use the German Council Presidency, which began in July, to reach an agreement. That is why Berlin pushed the negotiations forward.
The talks had made little progress over the years. But a few weeks ago, Beijing surprisingly presented a significantly better offer for market access for European companies: investment bans in some industries or the obligation to bring a Chinese partner on board are to be dropped.
“Apparently Beijing wants a deal quickly to prevent the new US President Joe Biden from forging an alliance with the EU against China,” suspects MEP Lange. Critics fear that Biden could interpret a degree shortly before taking office as an unfriendly act by the EU.