With a Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, the EU seeks to herald the start of a new era of cooperation with China before the end of 2020. However, this is proving to be difficult – not least because China shows (too) little willingness to improve the human rights and labour law situation in the country.
Negotiations on a Comprehensive Agreement on Investment between the EU and China have already been going on since 2013. Whilst the negotiations during the first years were rather slow, they have been significantly gained pace over the past two years. The rounds of negotiations had become rather more frequent with the aim to reach an agreement by the end of 2020. This roadmap was once again confirmed on 9 November 2020 during a video conference by EU Trade Ministers.
With this Agreement, the EU Commission wants to improve European companies’ access to the Chinese market and ensure a level playing field – among other with regard to state subsidies and transparency. However, progress is also to be made in respect of sustainable development. Still, according to the EU Commission, China had so far shown more commitment concerning the protection of the environment and less with regard to protecting workers.
Hearing before the Committee on International Trade
On 9 November 2020, the European Parliament’s Committee on International Trade held a hearing on EU-China Trade and Investment Relations in a post-Covid world. Taking part in the hearing was also the Deputy Director-General of DG Trade, Helena König. According to her, the Coronavirus crisis had even accelerated certain geopolitical trends and in some areas – for example regarding the supply of personal protective equipment – exposed a strong dependence of the EU on China. Hence, König argued in favour of identifying strategic dependencies and diversifying supply chains. In order to solve global challenges such as climate change or reforming the WTO, cooperating with China was imperative. However, the EU had to make sure that it defended its own values.
Apart from balanced market access, a level playing field, the forced technology transfer from Europe to China and the role played by Chinese state-owned companies, MEPs also addressed the labour law and human rights situation, and above all the subject of forced labour. Helena König had to admit that in this area there had still been too little movement by China. Raphael Glucksmann, S&D, pointed out that it had been known for months, which international corporations were benefitting from the forced labour of Uighurs interned in China. Still, so far there had been no legal consequences. Here, König was able only to refer to the announced Commission proposal on due diligence, which is to be presented in the second quarter of 2021.
No agreement without human rights, labour and environmental laws
During a video conference on 14 September 2020, the senior leadership of both sides declared their intention to eliminate existing differences before the end of 2020. In the long-term, the negotiations on the Agreement on Investment might also be able to sound out China’s willingness towards stronger bilateral cooperation; subsequently, they might form the basis for a more comprehensive trade agreement. The Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had already voiced his country’s interest at the end of 2019.
In any case, the Chamber of Labour will closely monitor the negotiations. It goes without saying that an Agreement may only be conceivable, when China commits to adhering comprehensive human rights, labour and environmental law standards and if it is possible to effectively punish any violations. Above all, this concerns the eight ILO Core Labour Standards.