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Beijing's assurances on forced labor 'hot air': Chair of EU Parliament's China Delegation

Taiwan News interviews Reinhard Bütikofer MEP about controversial EU-China investment deal

December plenary session at European Parliament in Brussels. (Reuters photo) 

December plenary session at European Parliament in Brussels. (Reuters photo) 

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — EU leaders and China hammered out the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) in the closing days of 2020 at a time when the Chinese Communist Party is increasingly on the defensive over its human rights violations, from the suppression of basic freedoms in Hong Kong to the mass internment of Muslim Uyghurs in concentration camps and mounting evidence they are being pressed into labor.

Europe has secured assurances from China that its market would be made more accessible and that it would set restrictions on forced technology transfers. However, objections to the investment deal, which was cut behind closed doors, have come from many quarters, including national governments, NGOs, and the ranks of the European Parliament itself.

In addition to the atypically opaque negotiation process, skeptics are criticizing the agreement for wording they say gives China a free pass on issues like forced labor, with China offering only vague guarantees to "pursue ratification" of key International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions that would hold it accountable.

The treaty must still be voted on in the EU Parliament before entering effect. Some in that body will continue to oppose it, at least until Bejing demonstrates to them it is acting in good faith.

Reinhard Bütikofer MEP is in this camp.

The German politician joined the European Parliament in 2009, where he serves on the Committee on Industry, Research, and Energy, Subcommittee on Security and Defense, and Committee on Foreign Affairs. Since 2012, the European Green Party co-spokesperson has also chaired the Parliament's China Delegation, and he is a member of the international Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China.

Bütikofer sat down with Taiwan News for an interview about the deal, its weaknesses, and its impact on Europe's relationship with the Middle Kingdom as well as the bloc's ally the United States.

TN: In terms of forced labor, how effective are the current measures included in the deal?

“This deal, in my assessment, has several severe shortcomings. It doesn't sufficiently take into account the geopolitical context, and it does not satisfy the demands the EU Parliament has made with respect to what we expect to be in this deal.

And this pertains, in particular, to the labor protections issue. They fall into what could be described as the 'third basket of the deal,' the first being about market access, the second about level playing field issues, and the third about what we call the sustainability chapter, which covers environment, corporate social responsibility, climate, and labor protections.

Now without commenting on all the aspects, let me just focus on the latter. And I will read to you the language that has been agreed on the draft deal:

'China will make continued and sustained efforts to pursue ratification of two fundamental ILO core conventions.'

China has not ratified four core conventions of the ILO — namely conventions 29 and 105 that go against forced labor. Neither have they ratified conventions 87 and 98 that provide the right to organize independent trade unions and the right of collective bargaining. The latter two are not even mentioned in the language of the deal, so the right of trade unions and collective bargaining is off the table completely.

But concerning forced labor, this language is just hot air — It's a polite way of saying “Get off my back, I'm not gonna move.” Because to say "We will make continued and sustained efforts to pursue ratification" is falling far short of what the EU agreed with Vietnam recently, where we had similar problems, and we dealt with them in a totally different way."

In the case of Vietnam, we agreed on an implementation plan according to which Vietnam had to ratify some of the core conventions right now, and for the rest, there was a step-by-step plan which implied that the last convention would be ratified by 2023.

This is the minimum, and if the [European] Commission says in public that they have binding commitments on combatting forced labor, that's obviously not the truth. Because to say 'We'll make continued efforts to ratify' — even it was true, is certainly not a pledge to combat. The wording we find here is completely frustrating and unacceptable.

To say this in a simple way: We learn every day that the CCP leads everything in China: east, west, north, south; they lead the PLA, they lead the National People's Congress, they lead everything. If they want to, they can lead the ratification of ILO core conventions.

Who would keep Xi Jinping from issuing an order to say 'Let's ratify this' if he wanted to do that? So why not insist on an implementation plan? I think this is what the EU Parliament should insist upon."

Excerpt from Taiwan News' interview with Reinhard Bütikofer:

TN: "Do you see any chance for more definite language to be added to the agreement before it is ratified?"

"Not at all. Negotiations have been closed. So, in the end, it will be an up or down vote on the whole deal in the EU Parliament. We don't have line-item authority, so either we accept the whole deal or we reject it altogether.

That will probably not happen until autumn because between now and a final decision in the EU Parliament, they have to do what they call the “legal scrubbing” on the language. They have to do translations into all the 24 official languages of the EU.

That all takes a couple of months. In the meantime, because every EU Parliament member has the right to discuss matters at stake in their mother tongue, the European Parliament cannot move on the issues until we have at least the translations. So that will take some time.

But in that period of time, of course, the Chinese side will move. And maybe we will just sit down in the Parliament and say 'Okay. You promised to ratify. Maybe we will wait without ratification and see what you do.'"

TN: "U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Matthew Pottinger suggested the deal preempts U.S. cooperation with the EU to pressure China on issues like forced labor. Do you think this undercuts that effort?"

"Well, I do respect Matt Pottinger a lot, but I would not agree that the Trump administration is in a very good position to criticize Europe on China policy. Because as far as I can recall, labor protection issues were not even raised in the phase 1 deal. Nor was climate protection or environmental protection or CSR [corporate social responsibility].

I mean the issues that we're struggling with were just abandoned by President Trump. So let there not be too much hypocrisy.

On the other side, there is some validity to the criticism from Washington, including from Pottinger, because I consider it was a mistake not to wait on finalization of the deal until we've had an opportunity to consult with the incoming Biden administration. There have been clear signals, both from the Biden people and from the European side, that there is some willingness to reinvigorate transatlantic cooperation [with] China.

In the spirit of cooperation, it would have been imperative to not rush this deal just weeks before President-elect Biden comes into office. It would have given an important signal that we mean business.

I'm not saying that Brussels should have asked Uncle Joe whether he gives us an OK for negotiating with the Chinese — we can make our own decisions. But to exemplify our willingness to really move together, that would have been extremely important.

And there are downsides to the deal that we have not mentioned. For instance, on procurement. There's no progress on procurement. Even though China, since they joined the WHO in 2001, 20 years ago, they have promised more than 17 times that they would move, and they haven't.

And on this deal, they haven't either. So there would have been stuff to be discussed: How can we make progress together?

And the decision on the part of the German chancellor and French President Macron, I think those two individuals were the most decisive factors behind concluding the deal now. Their decision was a false one in that regard, and it makes transatlantic cooperation — not impossible — but more difficult."

TN: "What would you say were the main factors in Chancellor Merkel and President Macron's push to conclude the deal now?"

"The chancellor had tried to use her role as the rotating president of the EU to shape the EU's China policy in a “German way,” often described as 'Wandel durch handel,' which translates to “Change through trade.” This is the old convergence theory. The more we cooperate with the Chinese, the more criminality we will find, the more win-win we will get, the closer we will move together, the more they will adopt rule of law, institutional guarantees, civic rights, human rights, and all that.

And I think this is a false theory that has been disproven by developments over at least the last 10 years. The EU had started to move away from that by defining China as a systemic rival about three years ago. The chancellor has never agreed with that — she has never used the term 'systemic rivalry' — and I think she meant it to be a part of her achievement that she would set a special tone for the overall trajectory of EU-China relations.

And secondly, I would argue there is something that could be called the 'German automotive foreign policy,' where the interests of Volkswagen and Daimler and others are considered to be congruent with the national interest of Germany, which I don't think is correct because if these companies put too many eggs in the Chinese basket, we can be taken hostage by them and become subservient to the Chinese party-state.

And the third element, on the part of Macron: there have also been industrial interests, but also he's so very fond of the idea of so-called strategic autonomy of the EU that he prizes moving autonomously even if it means shooting yourself in the foot autonomously."

Updated : 2022-01-28 14:26 GMT+08:00