Progressive members of the European Parliament — including some allied to French President Emmanuel Macron — are pushing back at Europe’s two biggest political groupings for failing to insist that Beijing must sign a pact on ending forced labor as a pre-condition for ratification of an investment deal.
With the blessing of EU countries, the European Commission struck an investment accord in principle with China at the end of last year, but quickly ran into intense criticism for not demanding tough action on human rights abuses such as forced labor among the Muslim Uighur minority in the western region of Xinjiang.
The European Parliament has emerged as the key battleground that could block the deal over these rights concerns. Critics of the deal want China to at least sign up to two conventions on forced labor under the International Labour Organization (ILO) as a pre-condition for ratification of the deal, but they fear the political consensus is retreating from this conditionality, and drifting toward agreeing on a “timeline” for China to engage with the ILO. The critics fear China could use this “timeline” loophole to drag out the process and avoid any steps on Uighur “training” camps once the EU-China deal is ratified.
All eyes are now on whether the two biggest groupings in the European Parliament — the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) and center-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) — will make the ILO signing a pre-condition. So far, they haven’t done so.
The latest round of the debate arose after two of the top members of the European Parliament specializing in trade, Bernd Lange from the S&D and Iuliu Winkler from the EPP, wrote to China’s ambassador in Brussels to suggest the Chinese leadership take “concrete steps” toward ratifying ILO conventions against forced labor, before the vote takes place.
“It all depends of what they mean by ‘concrete steps.’ Those cannot be defined as good intentions or a state of mind. A timeline won’t be satisfactory,” Stéphane Séjourné, a French member of the European Parliament from the Renew Europe group and a close ally of Macron, told POLITICO. “I’ll advocate that the [EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment] should be conditioned to the ratification of ILO.”
Marie-Pierre Vedrenne, a fellow French lawmaker from Renew Europe, agreed it would be necessary for China to ratify the ILO charter. “China must ratify these ILO conventions. And not only ratify, but also implement them,” she said at an event hosted by the Polish Institute of International Affairs and the Institut Montaigne.
Among the parliamentary groups, the Greens have been the most outspoken and Reinhard Bütikofer, chair of the Parliament’s delegation on relations with China, opposes the pact over concerns ranging from labor rights to the poisoning of ties with the U.S. “Looking forward, I would indeed insist that we should deal with ratification of CAI only after the Chinese side has indeed taken steps,” he said.
The United Nations has estimated 1 million Uighurs were put into internment camps that Chinese authorities call “vocational training facilities.” The U.S. has banned imports of cotton and tomatoes from the region, while the U.K. put in place a due diligence scheme requiring companies to remove from their supply chains products from areas with forced labor. Europe has not imposed any equivalent trade restrictions.
According to the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, China has agreed only to make “continued and sustained efforts” toward ratifying the ILO conventions, sparking criticism from EU lawmakers and China watchers who accused the EU of giving Beijing a free hand. China has always rejected the accusation that forced labor exists in the country.
The heavweights from the S&D and EPP, however, stopped short of saying that China would have to sign up to the ILO requirement before ratification.
Asked by POLITICO to elaborate on his letter to the Chinese ambassador, Lange, who chairs the Parliament’s trade committee, took the timeline approach. He said China would need to come up with “a binding implementation plan with concrete dates and concrete steps.”
“CAI is not the instrument — it’s one instrument,” Lange said. “We should reflect on China’s strategy as a whole.”
He did, however, caution that the ratification could take on a broader political dimension if Beijing’s stance toward Hong Kong and Taiwan weighed on sentiment among MEPs.
When asked whether the ILO signing should be a pre-condition, Winkler did not respond directly but said that was it was still early in the process and MEPs needed to do more research to determine what leverage the ILO that could offer.
“I think that now we are just organizing our scrutiny,” he said. “So I think that this is the time to find out to understand the content, to understand the context and to build the necessary framework for all the work that we have to do in the following months.”
Séjourné, the Macron ally, said it was important to ensure the preservation of human rights, and argued that the China deal mattered more than just an investment pact.
“Any trade or investment agreement is a political agreement, it implies a power dynamic between the two parties. And that is where the [European Parliament] needs to push for deeds not words when it comes to the Uighur population and freedom fighters in Hong Kong,” he said.
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