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Brussels has asserted its autonomy from Washington, at least when it comes to its relations with Beijing. But some around town are questioning whether it has kept its credibility.
In December, the EU and China concluded negotiations on the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI), their first bilateral investment treaty, after seven years of negotiations.
Brussels says that China had agreed to ‘solid provisions’ on labour rights, environment and climate and the crucial ban on forced transfer of technology from foreign companies – a symbolic assertion of Europe’s ‘strategic autonomy’.
This could prove to be trickier than it looks as the debate surrounding the deal remains contentious.
Despite prevailing concerns by several member states, such as Poland and France, EU officials are confident the treaty will speed through the European Council once it gets there.
However, it also needs approval by the European Parliament and that’s where it can expect a difficult ride.
On Wednesday, MEPs overwhelmingly passed a resolution saying the EU has lost credibility on human rights by sealing the investment deal and calling for targeted sanctions over the Chinese crackdown on Hong Kong activists and the use of forced labour, particularly among the Uighur Muslim minority.
China was quick to hit back: EU lawmakers should “face up to the reality that Hong Kong has returned to China”, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.
She added that the resolution showed that some MEPs had “confused right and wrong” and engaged in “gross interference in the affairs of China’s Hong Kong”.
The European Parliament should “stop any form of meddling”, Hua added.
When EU foreign ministers meet on Monday, chief diplomat Joseph Borrell will raise the situation in Hong Kong, senior EU diplomats confirmed. It will be revisited during another meeting in February and at EU-China leaders set for March.
The new Biden administration had asked Europe for coordination on China, but the EU push for the agreement ‘in principle’ might have made the reparation of EU-US relations a bit more difficult.
Beyond the geopolitical aspect, the crucial question will be whether the EU will prioritise economic ties over human rights?
EU IN THE WORLD
RUSSIA SANCTIONS. The EU’s recently approved Magnitsky-style law allowing the 27-member bloc to impose sanctions on human rights abusers could soon become reality as calls grow in Europe to apply the new punitive measures to Russia over the detention of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. The European Parliament suggested putting the plug on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
MORE SANCTIONS? Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu paid a visit to Brussels this week, ahead of next week’s foreign affairs ministerial and the resumption of talks over the Eastern Mediterranean dispute. It’s clear, Turkey is attempting to change tack vis-à-vis the EU.
At the same time, calls grow for Germany’s foreign minister Heiko Maas to explain why he remained silent after Çavuşoğlu threatened Greece at a joint press conference earlier this week.
REKINDLE LINKS? Israel said it hopes that Portugal will be able to convince the EU to reconvene the Israel-EU Association Council during the Portuguese EU presidency and take an opportunity to relaunch bilateral ties. The call comes the same week as advanced plans for 780 new settler homes in the occupied West Bank, causing EU condemnation and putting Israel “on a collision course” with the incoming US administration.
NEW START EXTENTION. US President Joe Biden will seek a five-year extension to the New START arms control treaty with Russia, the White House said, in one of the first major foreign policy decisions of the new administration ahead of the treaty’s expiry in early February.
NEW PACT. Hours before Joe Biden was to be sworn in as president, EU leaders extended the invitation to cooperate more closely but also warned that four years of the Trump administration had changed the nature of transatlantic ties. All Brussels-based institutions are eager to leave behind the shadow of the Trump administration and explore joint initiatives to boost relations between Brussels and Washington.
Thus hopes are high for the new US Ambassadors to EU/NATO, though they are unlikely to be touching down too soon, as they require US Senate approval. Currently, members of Biden’s cabinet are being auditioned. An educated guess around town is March (but likely later).
CHINA MOVES. China is organising a “last minute” high-level summit with heads of Central and Eastern European states under the so-called 17+1 format, which should take place “at least online” in February.
CLIMATE HOPES. The EU and US are also entering a new era of climate diplomacy as Biden rejoined the Paris Agreement on his first day in the office and set a target of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, a move that mirrors Europe’s own commitments.
GLOBAL EURO. The European Commission launched a new offensive to promote the use of the EU’s single currency at global level, aiming to address the vulnerabilities of financial markets, which are seen as “too reliant” on the US dollar.
ILLEGAL TRANSFERS. European Parliament services are coming under pressure from a group of lawmakers working with privacy activist Max Schrems over allegations that the institution’s coronavirus test management website is illegally siphoning data to US-based firms.
VACCINE GEOPOLITICS. Remember when we wrote that the European Commission had ‘forgot’ about helping its closest partners in the Western Balkans and Eastern Partnership in acquiring vaccines quickly? Bosnia and Herzegovina has now announced it plans to order Russian and Chinese-made coronavirus vaccines fearing that deliveries ordered under the COVAX scheme for poor countries and from the EU will be too little too late, officials said.
POWER CHANGE. Montenegro will pursue a “zero problem doctrine” with its neighbours, while EU accession remains its main priority, Djordje Radulović, the country’s new foreign minister, told EURACTIV weeks after the EU hopeful saw its first democratic change of power in 30 years.
MEMBERSHIP HOPES. Georgia’s President Salome Zourabishvili is paying a visit to all three European institutions to cement Georgia’s bid for EU membership in 2024. The EU doesn’t treat Georgia as a candidate country, but rather as an Associate country member of the Eastern Partnership. This, however, doesn’t appear to have discouraged Tbilisi from aiming at full EU accession.
‘DIRECT CONTROL’. Russia and Georgia fought a brief war in August 2008, which resulted in Georgia losing control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, roughly 25% of its territory. Now the European Court of Human Rights declared Russia is responsible for human rights violations, including loss of life, torture, disrespect of property and privacy occurring in Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as it had ‘direct control’ of the territories after the 2008 Russo-Georgian war.
WHAT ELSE WE’RE READING
ON OUR RADAR FOR THE NEXT FEW DAYS…
Europe’s everyday business is still stuck in lockdown reality, until further notice. We’ll keep you updated on all relevant EU foreign affairs news, as we kick off into the new year.
- UN treaty banning nuclear weapons (TPNW) enters into force
| Thursday, 21 January 2021 | Geneva, Switzerland
- Portuguese presidential election
| Sunday, 24 January 2021 | Lisbon, Portugal
- Foreign Affairs Council
| Monday, 25 January 2021 | Brussels, Belgium
- Turkey, Greece resume talks over Eastern Mediterranean dispute
| Monday, 25 January 2021 | Istanbul, Turkey
- European Parliament’s AFET Committee
| Mo-Tue, 25-26 January 2021 | Brussels, Belgium
- European Parliament’s SEDE Committee
| We-Thu, 27-28 January 2021 | Brussels, Belgium
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[Edited by Benjamin Fox]