The Role of the European Parliament in China-eu Relations

China International Studies (English) - - Contents - Zhang Lei

The European Parliament’s competence in the Union’s foreign relations has been strengthened since the Lisbon Treaty. The issues involving China have become broader, bringing positive effects to China-eu relations.

As one of the three major institutions of the European Union (EU), the power and functions of the European Parliament have been strengthened in the EU’S external relations since the Lisbon Treaty came into effect. In recent years, the European Parliament’s concerns about China has been constantly growing. What role will it play in Chinaeu relations? How many important actors involving China are included inside the European Parliament? And which issues are its main concerns about China? All these questions are inevitable for further studying China-eu relations.

Power and Functions of the European Parliament in the EU’S External Relations

The EU’S external relationship is a broad field, not only including traditionally diplomatic policies, but also covering development cooperation as well as a series of departmental policies like trade, transportation and environment. Before 2009 when the Lisbon Treaty came into force, the influence of the European Parliament on the EU’S external relationship was relatively limited. The Treaty has produced important influences on the EU’S external relations, the most significant and symbolic being that the EU gained legal personality (Article 47), which means that the EU is empowered to sign international agreements and participate in international

organizations. The second dramatic change is the establishment of the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (HR), supported by the European External Action Service (EEAS) (Article 18).

All these new changes are of great significance to the European Parliament. In the common foreign and security policy, the main power and functions of the European Parliament is the right of consultation and the right to know, supervise and review, including the right to acquire timely and adequate information of international treaties in this field, and supervise and review the implementation of foreign policies (mainly involving debates on relevant affairs, resolutions on reports by the Council of the European Union with regard to main issues in this field, inquiries and suggestions presented to the Council). The HR shall bear responsibilities for the European Parliament and the appointment and dismissal of the European Commission members, including the HR, are subject to the Parliament’s permission. As stipulated in Article 36 of the Treaty, the HR shall regularly seek for the Parliament’s opinions on main contents and fundamental choices of the common foreign and security policy, and make sure that the opinions are taken into account. Although the comments from the Parliament are not legally binding, this stipulation does reinforce the connection between the Parliament and the HR, which is further strengthened by the Declaration by the High Representative/vice-president of the Commission on Political Accountability in 2010. The Parliament is also entitled to passing the annual budget of the common foreign and security policy, and approving the EU Financial Instruments for External Action with the Council as co-legislator. In practice, the Parliament entertains a strong desire to play a role in the common foreign and security policy. In its verdict of the litigation filed by the Parliament against the Council about the Eu-mauritius Agreement (Case C658/11) in June 2014, the European Court pointed out that the Parliament shall obtain prompt and sufficient information in the whole negotiation process of international agreements, otherwise jurisdiction of the Parliament would be denied.

In the area of common commercial policy, policy decisions were

mainly under the control of the European Commission and the Council of the European Union. But the Lisbon Treaty endows the European Parliament with more direct powers, thus enhancing its authority on the EU’S conduct of bilateral and international trade agreement negotiations. As Article 218 prescribes, international treaties as well as commercial and cooperation agreements under the ordinary legislative procedure shall be approved by the European Parliament. At the moment, the Trans-atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which involves negotiations between the EU and the US, is subject to approval from the Parliament for final adoption. Furthermore, the Lisbon Treaty expands the scope of the Union’s common commercial policy into such a degree that FDI is covered. Besides, Article 207 regulates that the Parliament and the Council shall adopt measures to determine the framework for carrying out the common commercial policy based on the ordinary legislative procedure and by means of regulations. That is to say, the Parliament and the Council enjoy “common law-making power” in terms of preparing the EU’S trade policies and measures, which means the Parliament’s authority in the EU’S external relations has been strengthened, instead of being constrained to the right of consultation, after the Lisbon Treaty.

Specifically in China-eu relations, the bilateral investment agreement under negotiation entails final consent from the European Parliament. The Parliament emphasizes that the decision to admit China’s market economy status needs to undergo the ordinary legislative procedure, and it shall enjoy legislative power together with the Council. Besides, the Parliament plays an indirect role in China-eu relations through its supervisory and budgetary powers on the European Commission, the EEAS and other EU institutions.

Actors and Issues Involving China in the European Parliament China-related actors

The internal structure of the European Parliament can be divided

into four levels: specialized parliamentary committees, parliamentary groups, delegations for foreign relations and informal groups. Among them, the institutions involving China mainly include the parliamentary groups in the Parliament, the Committees on Foreign Affairs (with its subcommittee on human rights) and on International Trade, Delegation for Relations with the People’s Republic of China, and three informal groups—the Eu-china Friendship Group, the Tibet Group and the Taiwan Group. Due to multiple identities of members of the European Parliament (MEPS), the mechanisms on the four levels, while mutually independent, are interconnected. (1) Parliamentary committees

The European Parliament now sets 20 standing committees and 2 subcommittees, whose main function is to submit reports and comments on related subjects. The committees also serve to communicate with other institutions (the institutions of the United Nations, other EU mechanisms, the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, parliaments of EU member countries) to exchange opinions and share experiences. Many parliamentary committees deal with affairs related to China, with the following being most prominent. First is the Committee on Foreign Affairs, which shall appoint a person to draft reports of the Parliament on Eu-china relations and comprehensively review the development of Eu-china relations. The Subcommittees on Human Rights and on Security and Defense are set under it. In recent years, the Parliament has been holding hearings on China’s human rights on an almost annual basis, such as a hearing on “challenges to freedom of expression and democracy in Hong Kong in the light of recent events” convened by the Human Rights Subcommittee in December 2014. Second is the Committee on International Trade, which is responsible to draft reports on the Eu-china trade and economic relationship and on the Eu-china investment agreement negotiations. Among its concerns are China’s non-tariff barriers and the poor quality of some Chinese

products. Third is the Committee on Development, which pays special attention to China’s policies on Africa and its challenge to the EU. Concerning the great changes of the EU’S development policy agenda, members of this Committee once pointed out that the EU must phase out development aid to China, which has been an emerging economy and a major economic player on the international arena. Besides, issues related to China are discussed in other parliamentary committees. For example, the Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety organized seminars on “EU, China and Climate Change.” (2) Political groups and MEPS

Political groups are the most significant structure in the European Parliament, with all the main players in contact with China. The Group of the European People’s Party (Christian Democrats) frequently holds informal round-table conferences where the Delegation of China to the European Union and relevant Chinese embassies in European countries are invited to exchange opinions on hot issues and common concerns. Members of main political groups often pay visits to China for keeping close contact. In 2013, the European Conservatives and Reformists Group paid a visit to China and carried out smooth communication with the International Liaison Department of the CPC Central Committee. In addition, political groups in the Parliament run such activities related to China as the seminars on China’s development by the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, and two hearings conducted by the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe during the 7th session from 2009 to 2014 where Rebiya Kadeer, a separatist from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, was invited to discuss issues about China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

In recent years, the China-europe High-level Political Parties Forum promoted by the main political groups of the European Parliament and the CPC has been an important effort to enhance

communications among political parties in China and the EU. Both sides expect to forge the forum into a significant high-level, multilateral and strategic platform so as to strengthen China-eu strategic communications and deepen political mutual trust. However, there remain some divergences between China and the EU about the positioning and future development of the forum. For instance, some MEPS express dissatisfaction when certain MEPS are restricted from attending the forum when it is held in China.

To be clear, the position of the political groups in the European Parliament is not monolithic. Instead, there are different opinions on China and Eu-china relations within the political groups. Generally speaking, in terms of ideologies of the political groups, Group of the European People’s Party (Christian Democrats) and European Conservatives and Reformists Group attach more importance to trade issues and hold that people of two sides shall respect each other’s choices. Group of the Greens/european Free Alliance and Group of the Alliance

of Liberals and Democrats for Europe pay more attention to human rights issues while more religious MEPS in Group of the European People’s Party are more interested in issues related to Tibet.

Overall, the European Parliament’s discussions about China’s human rights tend to become more rational with the progress of Chinaeu relations and rise of China’s international standing. Except individual MEPS in the Parliament who remain purely human-rights activist, the majority of MEPS believe that Eu-china relations shall cover wider issues like economic and trade ties and cultural exchanges, instead of being limited to human rights. As a member from the Group of the European People’s Party suggests, Euchina relations have made great progress in the past five years and MEPS’ discussions about human rights become more professional and reasonable, rather than ideological criticisms and confrontations. A number of MEPS attempt to seek balance in attitudes towards China. For example, as Emar Brok, a member from the European People’s Party, says, “on one hand, there is a host of common interests between China and the EU; on the other hand, we have our own values, including the appreciation of the rule of law and human rights. In relations with China, we need to find a balance between the two points.” More and more MEPS come to realize the importance of China and consider China as a major actor on the international stage. For Brok, Europe is in favor of a multi-polar world and main political groups have forged consensus that the development of the world, especially the development of Europe, cannot do without China. Most MEPS think that there exists a strategic partnership between China and the EU. Former Deputy Speaker Miguel Angel Martinez holds that China and the EU have established a well-developed strategic partnership. The problems of the Eu-china Strategic Partnership lie in

The European Parliament’s discussions about China’s human rights tend to become more rational with the progress of China-eu relations and rise of China’s international standing.

the EU, since large gaps remain between the reality and the EU’S wish to join the ranks of major actors in the world. There are some MEPS who deem that the Eu-china Strategic Partnership is still an illusion. Some members from the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats assert that China-eu cooperation is not really a strategic partnership with mutual trust as its core, but just a kind of agreement. While quite a few MEPS appreciate China’s decision to further deepen reforms and opening-up, and regard reform measures as beneficial to deepen Eu-china relations in the future, others worry whether such reform measures can be put into practice, and fear that China’s priorities on developing relations with some member countries, particularly with Central and Eastern European countries, will split the EU. They maintain that cooperation between China and CEE countries shall be carried out under the framework of the EU’S laws, as a helpful supplement to Euchina cooperation. (3) The European Parliament’s Delegation for Relations with China The Delegation for Relations with China, one of major Chinarelated organizations in the European Parliament, keeps close contact with China’s National People’s Congress. The Delegation has held inter-parliamentary conferences with China’s NPC since 1980 with a regular exchange mechanism gradually established by the two sides. The issues involved by the Delegation are quite extensive, including human rights in China and the EU, China’s economic development, political reforms and status of civil law, cooperation between China and the EU in such fields as security and military, cyber crimes and climate change, as well as the Eu-china economic and trade relationship. Jo Leinen, incumbent president of the Delegation, who once served as the president of the Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety in the Parliament, expresses his wish for China to strengthen efforts to emission reduction and for China and the EU to reinforce cooperation in climate change and environmental protection through

launching Eu-china carbon trading cooperation. The Delegation has organized many communication activities since its establishment, which to a certain degree promotes the development of China-eu relations. As Song Zhe, China’s former ambassador to the EU, denotes, the Delegation is the major driving force in the European Parliament to develop relations with China and the “China view” among members of the Delegation determines to a large extent the Parliament’s cognition of China, hence influencing a number of the EU citizens’ cognition of China. In general, however, the Delegation plays a limited role with more emphasis on information sharing. Quite a few MEPS point out that direct communications among political parties are of more significance.

Moreover, informal groups, such as the Eu-china Friendship Group, the Tibet Group and the Taiwan Friendship Group, can exert influence on public opinions and mobilize MEPS’ vote to some extent. The Eu-china Friendship Group, founded in 2006, is committed to consolidating Eu-china communications and making its own contributions to bilateral relations. It is often invited to visit China by the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries. The Tibet Group, set up in 1989, seats over 100 MEPS who hold meetings irregularly and host a variety of activities related to Tibet. The Taiwan Friendship Group, formerly known as the Friends of Taiwan Group founded in 1991, aims to enhance the relationship and communications between the European Parliament and Taiwan.

Major China-related issues

Since its establishment, the European Parliament has adopted a multitude of resolutions involving China. On one hand, many issues are quite sensitive, like human rights, issues related to Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang, and arms embargo. In these resolutions, the European Parliament obviously interferes in China’s internal affairs. For example, it requires the Chinese government to make response to improving human rights situation, guaranteeing democracy, freedom

of speech, freedom of media, and religious and political freedoms. It emphasizes that Chinese Mainland and Taiwan shall find out solutions to divergences through negotiations. The Parliament also demands the Council of the European Union and EU member countries to maintain arm embargo to China. On the other hand, for issues involving visa, WTO, science and technology, shipping, and economic and trade relationship, the attitude of the European Parliament is generally positive, enhancing bilateral cooperation. (1) Human rights and other sensitive issues

The human rights issue is a major concern of the European Parliament. The Parliament generally assumes that China’s human rights conditions are extremely complicated and that the political rights of the Chinese people are still worrisome though their economic, social and education rights have been greatly improved. It stresses that further development of economic relations with China shall be accompanied by effective political dialogues and respect for human rights, demands that China release the so called “human rights defenders,” and requires China’s measures to strengthen and improve the Eu-china human rights dialogues and continue to discuss such matters as the ICCPR, reform of the criminal justice system (including abolition of death penalty and the system of re-education through labor), freedom of expression (particularly on the Internet), of the press, of access to information, of conscience, thought and religion, and the situation of ethnic minorities in Tibet as well as the workers’ rights. Among the EU’S institutions, the European Parliament has always been deeply concerned about issues related to Tibet, and thus adopted a series of Tibet-related resolutions and called for the EU to appoint a special representative to Tibet. The Parliament also pays attention to the rights of Xinjiang Uyghur and China’s other ethnic minorities. Besides, it often delivers its opinions on the Taiwan issue, hoping that the Taiwan’s representativeness in international organizations can be better defined. The Parliament calls

on the EU and Taiwan to sign agreements on investment protection and market access, which in its view does not in any way contradict the EU’S one-china policy, and it appreciates and supports Taiwan’s so-called democracy, social pluralism, respect for human rights and rule of law. (2) China-eu economic and trade relationship and other issues In recent years, the European Parliament has shown concerns for China in increasingly broader perspectives, with economic and trade relationship gradually becoming a major issue in China-eu relations. The issues drawing the Parliament’s attention include market access, trade deficit, and intellectual property rights. The Parliament appeals to the EU to establish more balanced trade relations with China and asks for an Eu-china partnership on the basis of mutual benefits and transparency so as to defend the interests of European industries.

The European Parliament has paid particular attention to the China-eu Bilateral Investment Agreement. First of all, the Parliament indicates that the Agreement is important for both sides, which can further enhance mutually beneficial cooperation in finance, infrastructure construction, new-style urbanization, new energy, technological innovation, energy conservation and environmental protection. Second, the Parliament lays emphasis on the significance of market access and regards it as a precondition of negotiations. Quite a few MEPS point out that market access is a very significant issue for the EU and will also be a difficult one in bilateral negotiations. Third, the Parliament highlights the significance of establishing prerequisites through the Agreement for fair competition between the EU and China, particularly assuring that a level playing-field applies to state-owned and privately-run enterprises. The investments by Sovereign Wealth Funds shall also be applicable to fair competition. Lastly, the Parliament holds that China has underperformed in certain fundamental social and labor rights as well as environmental standards, which the Parliament considers as partial reasons for trade imbalance between the EU and

China. The Parliament underlines that a precondition for the conclusion of the Agreement should be the inclusion of a strong commitment by the parties to sustainable and inclusive development in economic, social and environmental dimensions, in order to build a more balanced trade and investment relationship between the EU and China.

On May 12, 2016, the European Parliament passed a resolution about China’s market economy status by an overwhelming majority, further promoting the discussions surrounding this issue. The Parliament stressed the importance of China as the EU’S partner, but deemed that China has not fulfilled the EU’S five criteria to define market economies. The Parliament urged the European Commission to coordinate with the EU’S major trading partners and take due account of the concerns expressed by the EU’S industries, trade unions and other stakeholders so as to ensure that the EU jobs are defended. The Parliament was convinced that, until China meets all five EU criteria required to qualify as a market economy, the EU should adopt a non-standard methodology in anti-dumping and anti-subsidy investigations into Chinese imports. In parallel, the Parliament stressed the imminent need for a general reform of the EU’S trade defense instruments in order to guarantee a level playing field for the EU industries with China and other trading partners in full compliance with WTO rules, and called on the Council to rapidly seek agreement with the Parliament on the modernization of the Union’s trade defense instruments. (3) Comprehensive China-eu Relations

The European Parliament attaches great importance to the development of comprehensive China-eu relations. The concerned issues involve nearly every aspect of bilateral relations, such as the Euchina Strategic Partnership, China’s internal development and external conditions, as well as human rights issues. In general, the Parliament hopes to further improve the development of Eu-china relations. It welcomes the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic

relations between the EU and China as a source of inspiration to strengthen the strategic partnership, and calls on both sides to enhance political cooperation. It also shows interests in China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB), and requires that articles regarding sustainable development and human rights shall be included in the Bilateral Investment Agreement. At the same time, the Parliament calls for China and the EU to strengthen cooperation in security and defense, counter-terrorism, illegal immigration, climate change, urbanization and development aid so as to cope with global challenges and threats, and emphasizes that China shall play a greater role on the world stage. For instance, the Parliament urges the Chinese government to use all its leverages to ensure stability on the Korean Peninsula and exert influence on Pakistan to persuade the Southeast Asian nation to refrain from fuelling instability in the region.

Practical Role and Influence of the European Parliament in China-eu Relations

In practice, a variety of communication channels between the European Parliament and China, like parliamentary and party exchanges, have laid the foundation for China and the EU to promote understanding. To some extent, the Parliament’s debates on issues related to China have provided the EU citizens with a platform for viewpoint collision. With the steady rise of the Parliament’s participation in policy making, it now exerts ever-greater influence on the EU’S external relations and plays an increasingly important role in China-eu relations.

Role and influence of the European Parliament’s human rights resolutions

In the area of human rights, the European Parliament is regarded as the most principled and ingenuous institution in the EU. With the purpose of safeguarding human rights, the Parliament not only cares

about the human rights situation of its member countries, but also focuses on “suspected” human-rights violations in other countries and regions. It once passed resolutions on the human rights of the US and Russia. Based on a survey in 2015, 59 percent of the interviewed EU citizens claimed that “protecting human rights” is the most important value that the European Parliament shall defend. In addition, the Parliament’s proceedings and rules also make for the approval of humanrights resolutions. According to the Parliament plenary meeting’s procedure, the debate on human rights violations shall be arranged on Thursday afternoons followed by voting. Since the plenary meeting usually lasts four days and some MEPS leave the venue on the afternoon of the fourth day, the number of MEPS who can take part in the voting is limited. Therefore, compared with significant legislative proposals, it is easier for human rights resolutions to be passed. For instance, there were altogether two disclosed ballots for the resolution on the so-called “Ai Weiwei incident” on April 7, 2011. 39 MEPS voted in the first ballot, with 26 in favor and 13 against; in the second ballot, 35 voted in favor and 4 against. As a sharp contrast, 567 MEPS participated in voting on partial contents of the policy review on Europe’s eastern neighboring countries, with 247 in favor, 295 against and 25 abstentions.

Overall, the European Parliament’s resolutions on China’s human rights are not legally binding, but only an expression of its concerns. Even though human rights resolutions have relatively limited influence on the EU’S common foreign and security policy, the Parliament’s attacks on China with regard to human rights not only obstruct mutually political trust between China and the EU, but also defame China’s image in Europeans’ view, which may to some degree affect the international opinion and finally negatively impact the development of China-eu relations.

Role of the European Parliament in trade and investment

Following the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, the influence

of the European Parliament in the EU’S trade and investment has been significantly improved, making the negotiation process in this area more complicated and variable. Take as an example the negotiation process of the Eu-south Korea Free Trade Agreement, the European Parliament successfully incorporated some safeguard clauses so as to protect European industries. For another example, the Parliament rejected the Anti-counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) in 2012 (478 voted against ACTA and 39 in favor).

Specifically for Eu-china relations, the Lisbon Treaty sets investment as the EU’S exclusive competence and at the same time provides that the European Parliament possesses a consent right for international treaties, which brings a lot of uncertainties for the development of China-eu relations. If the Parliament rejected the Bilateral Investment Agreement, China-eu relations would be adversely affected. At the moment, the EU has not achieved any investment agreement. The negotiation on the China-eu Agreement represents the first time for the EU to exercise this power since the Lisbon Treaty came into operation, and hence draws much attention from the European Parliament. It can be expected that the negotiation on the Agreement is highly variable. On one hand, the Parliament embraces the Agreement and expects to further push forward the development of bilateral relations. On the other hand, compared with the European Commission, the Parliament is more cautious and moderate for supporting free trade. The Parliament pays more attention to the concerns of the civil society, like human rights, fundamental freedoms and sustainable development. Thus in practice, the Parliament tends to relate non-trade issues (human rights, social and environmental standards) with trade policies. In terms of political parties, the Parliament’s debates on trade and investment policies are mainly dominated by the “leftist-rightist division.” The Parliament in general adheres to the trade agenda supported by the European Commission, and supposes that relevant concerns (human rights included) can be put forward in other ways. As a good few MEPS indicate, the Parliament on the whole wants to further propel the

development of Eu-china relations, and human rights issues shall not hinder the achievement of the Bilateral Investment Agreement despite that this agreement arouses heated debates and extensive attention in the Parliament which holds critical attitudes towards China’s human rights situation.

In the EU’S viewpoint, whether to grant the market economy status to China or not involves the amendment of the EU’S anti-dumping legislation. According to the ordinary legislative procedures (co-decision procedures), the European Parliament, which enjoys more authorities than the consent right, shares legislative power with the Council of the European Union. The Parliament expects the European Commission to present more balanced proposals which not only abide by WTO rules, but also protects the EU’S industries and employment. For the moment, the resolutions passed by the Parliament do not manifest a relatively constructive attitude toward this issue. While the resolutions are not legally binding, the Commission and the Council cannot totally ignore the Parliament’s attitudes.


The year 2016 is the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the EU, and also marks the beginning for China and the EU to further boost bilateral relations and forge four partnerships featuring peace, growth, reform and civilization. It is of practical significance to have a sound understanding of actors and issues involving China inside the European Parliament. Judging from the internal mechanisms of the Parliament, the parliamentary committees and political groups are major institutions to form resolutions on China, while the Delegation for Relations with China, informal groups and individual MEPS also play their roles. Parliamentary communications and party exchanges serve as important platforms and channels for connection between the European Parliament and China, and as a major

approach to promoting mutual understanding, dismissing suspicions and distrust and enhancing the stable development of bilateral relations. In terms of attitudes of MEPS, while some insist on toughly critical stance on China, more have now adopted a pragmatic attitude and held more balanced opinions on China. In terms of issues, the Parliament’s resolutions on China have changed from mainly focusing on the single issue of human rights into broader topics including politics, economy and trade, society, development, diplomacy and environment.

Generally speaking, not only does the European Parliament offer advice for the EU to boost the China-eu Strategic Partnership, it also exerts influence upon China-eu bilateral relations to a certain degree and may affect the public opinion. Due to the differences in ideologies and views on human rights issues, it is inevitable for the Parliament to continually pass resolutions on China’s human rights and the rights of ethnic minorities in China in the future, which to some extent will have negative impacts on China-eu relations. Nonetheless, most MEPS are increasingly focusing on China from a wider perspective and anticipate to continuously push forward the development of bilateral relations, so their role in advancing China-eu relations cannot be neglected. Quite a few MEPS entertain hopes for the future China-eu relations and wish to promote it by all means and in various ways.

The negotiation on the China-eu Bilateral Investment Agreement and the issue of China’s market economy status are the focuses of the European Parliament and China-eu relations in 2016. If the FTA negotiation between China and the EU is launched in the future, both sides shall take the attitudes of the European Parliament into account. Furthermore, just as many MEPS stress, China-eu relations cannot solely rely on economy and trade though it is the cornerstone of bilateral relations. It is still necessary for both sides to seek or establish common values and strengthen communications in other areas.

MEP Miroslav Poche, member of the Delegation for Relations with China, endorses a negotiated solution to the South China Sea dispute.

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