Parliaments are on the frontlines of Europe’s face-off with China

The European Parliament is trying to forge a path towards a more balanced relationship with China.
The European Parliament is trying to forge a path towards a more balanced relationship with China.
Image: REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
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Members of the European Parliament today (June 19) adopted a resolution condemning China’s unilateral imposition of a new security law in Hong Kong, and called on member states to respond, most notably by filing a case against the Chinese government before the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

The text of the resolution passed unchanged, with a majority of 565 votes, and will now be sent to all EU institutions, the government and parliament of the People’s Republic of China, and the chief executive and assembly of Hong Kong. It calls for the release of Swedish bookseller Gui Minhai, who published books critical of the Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong and was recently sentenced to 10 years in prison for providing intelligence overseas. It also “pays respect” to pro-democracy activists who were killed by Chinese military forces in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989. And it calls on EU countries to use tools like “Magnitsky-style” economic sanctions and channels like the United Nations and the ICJ to de-escalate the situation in Hong Kong.

The vote is the latest in a series of moves from European parliaments to challenge China’s actions in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong; establish links with Taiwan; and push for more transparency in their governments’ dealings with Chinese companies. Together, they show that members of parliaments are at the forefront of efforts to recalibrate their countries’ relationship with China.

(“Parliamentarians” is used broadly here to refer to people who are elected to represent the people of their constituencies in their countries’ assemblies or upper and lower houses. While every political system is different, parliamentarians are often conceived of as checks on executive power, and are not responsible for the day-to-day running of their countries.)

As Reinhard Bütikofer, chair of the European Parliament’s delegation for relations with China, argues, “we are playing the role [of] path breaker.”

Spotlight on the EU-China relationship

Relations between the European Union and China are at a crossroads. Covid-19 has caused friction between Beijing and Brussels, and kickstarted a debate about the need for supply chain diversification (Quartz member exclusive). EU countries are also struggling to decide what role Chinese technology should play in their future 5G networks, with some bowing to pressure from the US to blacklist tech giant Huawei and others sticking by the company. Meanwhile, Brussels and Beijing are on their 30th round of negotiations over a joint investment agreement that will govern market access, fair business practices, trade, and green investments. In a parallel, pandemic-free world, EU officials hoped to sign this agreement—which has been eight years in the making—at a high-level summit this fall, but that has now been postponed.

While China’s position towards the EU has been consistent, the EU has struggled to come up with a unified response to its second-largest trading partner. That’s because the EU’s 27 members all have very different levels of economic dependence on China. “It is impossible to put our relationship with China into a single box; it is too complex,” the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, previously told Quartz. “It does not fit into a single category. Is it an ally or a rival? A partner or a competitor? It is both.”

Borrell and the EU’s diplomatic service have since been criticized for seeming to call into question the European Commission’s 2019 assessment of China as a “systemic rival” in a press conference, and for stating that China doesn’t present a threat to world peace. The German government has put its business relationship with China at the forefront, and been relatively muted on the situation in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, the UK, after declaring a golden era of relations with China, and allowing Huawei technology in its 5G network, performed a volte-face, and has become one of the most vocal countries in Europe against Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong and investment screening for Chinese companies (Quartz member exclusive).

Adding to the confusion is the fact that national governments typically pay a steep price when they speak out against China: For instance, after Australia called for an inquiry into the origin of the novel coronavirus, China slapped tariffs on its barley and stopped buying meat from its major abattoirs.

Parliamentarians at the forefront

Parliamentarians are freer than government officials to speak out against China, which is both their strength and their weakness. “The freedom of the parliamentary actor is that they are not constrained by the usual concerns of figures who are in government,” said Luke de Pulford, founder and coordinator of IPAC. In the grand schemes of politics, parliamentarians simply matter less. They can pass resolutions and bills but cannot enact policy. But a perceived lack of coherence on China at the national level has left a hole that they are coalescing to fill.

In recent weeks, a cross-party group of lawmakers has joined the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), whose aim is to “promote a coordinated response between democratic states to challenges posed by the present conduct and future ambitions of the People’s Republic of China.” In the UK, Conservative lawmakers have formed the China Research Group (CRG) to “promote debate and fresh thinking about how Britain should respond to the rise of China.”

The European Parliament, meanwhile, has been vocal on China. When the government of Hong Kong attempted to adopt a controversial extradition law last year that would have challenged the island’s autonomy, protests erupted. The European Parliament voted on a motion calling on authorities to release protesters and stop using excessive force against them. At the time, China’s foreign ministry in Hong Kong accused the parliament of “ignorance, prejudice, and hypocrisy.”

“The European Parliament has persistently been the most outspoken critic of human rights violations in China,” said Bütikofer, who led the effort to pass today’s resolution. “And obviously some member states seem to believe that they can outsource this criticism to the European Parliament.”

The European Parliament’s resolution on Hong Kong, for example, called on members to “consider” filing a case against China before the International Court of Justice; member states are under no obligation to do it. At the same time, that gives parliamentarians cover to do things their counterparts in the executive branch couldn’t do, for fear of angering Beijing beyond repair. That’s the case of Milos Vystrcil, the speaker of the Czech upper house of parliament, who announced that he will visit Taiwan on a trade mission in August. China claims Taiwan as its own, and sees official state visits to Taiwan as a violation of its One China Principle. While Vystrcil’s announcement earned him a stern rebuke from the Chinese embassy in Prague, its reaction would likely have been much worse if the Czech president or prime minister had visited Taipei.

Another advantage of parliamentarians is their sheer size. The European Parliament has more than 700 members, and each of the 27 EU countries has their own parliament, with hundreds more members. “There’s strength in unity,” said IPAC’s de Pulford. “If we’re able to, for example, lodge motions or even backbench legislation in 15 or so legislatures simultaneously, that’s a very strong international signal” to both China and national governments.

Concerted efforts by parliamentarians can, and have, moved the needle on EU-China policy. For example, EU foreign ministers met last month and decided not to pursue sanctions against Beijing for its actions in Hong Kong. The only country that asked for sanctions was Sweden, and it did so because Swedish parliamentarians voted in favor of them. Today’s European Parliament resolution will also likely influence discussions at a high-level EU-China summit next week.

Parliamentarians “have been on the front lines for some time,” said de Pulford. “And I think that governments are going to have to follow suit because the groundswell is now so strong.”