MEPs vote to freeze controversial EU-China investment deal

The European Parliament has overwhelmingly voted to freeze the ratification of the EU-China investment deal due to the sanctions that Beijing has imposed on five members of the hemicycle.

In a strongly-worded resolution passed on Thursday afternoon, the Parliament also deplores what it calls the "crimes against humanity" that are taking place against the Uyghur Muslim minority in the Xinjiang region and the crackdown on the democratic opposition in Hong Kong.

The latest development represents a new blow to the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) that European leaders reached during a video call with Chinese President Xi Jinping less than five months ago.

The Chinese government reacted to the European Parliament's vote by calling on Brussels to "immediately stop interfering in China’s internal affairs (and) abandon its confrontational approach".

“The unreasonable sanctions imposed by the EU have led to difficulties in China-EU relations. That is what China does not want to see, and the responsibility does not lie with the Chinese side," China foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said at a daily briefing.

Zhao reiterated China's stance that the agreement is a “balanced and win-win deal that benefits both sides, rather than a gift or favour bestowed by one side to the other."

“China has always been sincere in promoting cooperation between the two sides, and we hope that the European side will move in the same direction as us, with less emotional outburst and more rational thinking, and make the right decision in their own interests," Zhao said.

EU, China sanction each other

The agreement's main goal is to increase market access and ensure fair treatment for EU investors and companies doing business in China. The text wants to create a so-called level playing field and contains provisions on state-owned enterprises and subsidies.

While initially hailed as landmark, the agreement was quickly criticised for what critics say are insufficient commitments made in regards to labour rights, particularly forced labour. This issue has become politically thorny after revelations emerged of forced labour inside the detention camps in Xinjiang, which add to accusations of torture, disappearance, forced sterilisations, sexual violence and mass surveillance.

The ratification of the investment deal by the European Parliament – a necessary step in the EU legislative cycle – was in doubt from the very moment the draft text was published, but tensions escalated rapidly when, in late March, the European Union decide to impose the first sanctions against China in more than 30 years.

The raft of measures, designed in coordination with Western allies, targeted four Chinese officials and one entity believed to be involved in the human rights violations against the Uyghur minority.

China reacted swiftly and furiously: in an almost instantaneous counter-strike, the Chinese Foreign Ministry slapped sanctions on ten European individuals, including five Members of the European Parliament, and four entities, among which was the Parliament's subcommittee on human rights.

Beijing also blacklisted democratically-elected officials from the UK, the US and Canada. In total, more than 30 individuals and entities were sanctioned.

The MEPs say that any discussion around the investment deal "has justifiably been frozen because of the Chinese sanctions" and refuse to open the debate as long as they remain in place. They argue their ability to scrutinise the agreement has been "significantly hindered" by the restrictions placed on the subcommittee on human rights.

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