The European Parliament has signalled fierce opposition to advancing a market-access treaty with China by declaring it “frozen”, in a sign of mounting tensions between the bloc and Beijing.
MEPs voted by an overwhelming majority on Thursday to halt the ratification of the mooted pact because of retaliatory sanctions imposed by Beijing on European parliamentarians, diplomats, academics and think tanks. Thursday’s resolution was passed with 599 votes in favour, 30 against and 58 abstentions.
While carrying no legal force, the vote shows the hurdle to implement the deal, which requires EU parliament approval. It also reflects a shift in EU capitals against the accord, which was agreed at a political level only in December.
Beijing slapped on the sanctions in a response to EU travel bans and asset freezes imposed on four Chinese officials and a security organisation over persecution and mass internments of Uyghur Muslims. China’s measures are aimed at high-profile critics of its policies, but also included EU institutional bodies such as the bloc’s Political and Security Committee made up of ambassadors from the 27 member states.
Reinhard Bütikofer, a German Green MEP who chairs the EU parliament China delegation and was one of those placed under sanction, said the legislature would “not budge”. He said Beijing’s efforts to police the global conversation on China were “as ridiculous as they are arrogant, and they will fail”.
“With its sanctions, China has miscalculated,” he said. “They should learn from their mistakes and rethink.”
Pedro Marques, a socialist MEP from Portugal, said China had been guilty of an “attack against European democracy”, declaring: “We will not tolerate it.”
The investment agreement row underlines a growing EU debate over China policy as the US seeks to build international alliances to counter Beijing in areas such as trade and security. The European bloc is expanding its own armoury of economic weapons, including proposals to bar some state-subsidised foreign companies from the EU single market.
Sigrid Kaag, the Netherlands’ trade minister, said her country “very much” supported the EU parliament’s move on the investment deal.
She pointed to growing “political pressures” from China, including adding a Dutch MP from her own liberal D66 party to the sanctions list.
Kaag also urged better co-ordination between EU institutions to set a coherent policy on China.
“It’s an example of a broader difficult relationship where we need to find ways forward,” she said on Thursday. “We can’t just build little nice modules for ourselves and tick off boxes and not connect dots.”
The investment deal was long sought by the EU and would open up opportunities for EU companies operating in the Chinese market, while attempting to address longstanding complaints of unfair treatment.
Industries that would — on paper — enjoy improved terms of access include the automotive sector, private healthcare, cloud computing and ancillary services for air transport.
The political agreement for it was pushed through in the last days of Germany’s rotating presidency of the EU in December, with strong backing from Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Armin Laschet, her centre-right party’s nominee for German chancellor in September elections, implied on Wednesday that the deal could not be ratified unless the sanctions were lifted. “If you want to be [our] partner, you have to show mutual respect,” he said. “So on that issue I would like to see movement on the Chinese side.”
Beijing’s mission to the EU said: “China’s decision to take countermeasures is a legitimate response to the EU’s unilateral sanctions and confrontation. China always has the sincerity to promote co-operation with the EU. We hope that the EU side will work with us in the same direction.”