One of Brussels’ top two leaders has defended the EU’s efforts to reach an investment agreement with China, ahead of summit meetings with US President Joe Biden.
European Council President Charles Michel is to meet Biden at this weekend’s G7 summit in Cornwall, England, before hosting him in Brussels next week for EU-US talks.
Speaking to reporters ahead of the series of summits, Michel said that Biden’s efforts to mend ties mark a return to a “strong partnership” after tension under former US president Donald Trump’s administration.
He said Europe would not “paper over our fundamental values, our fundamental freedoms and human rights” in its dealings with an increasingly assertive China.
However, he defended Brussels’ troubled effort to negotiate a Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) with Beijing, which has been delayed by rows about human rights sanctions.
“We want to rebalance our economic relationship with China,” he said in an interview with a group of reporters late on Monday, including Agence France-Presse.
“In the last years we have decided to facilitate access to our single market,” he said, addressing China’s economic inroads into Europe. “But there is a lack of reciprocity and there is a lack of fairness and that’s why we tried last year to accelerate the negotiations in relationship with this investment agreement.”
“I know that there’s a democratic debate in Europe on the question of this investment agreement, but I’m convinced personally that what’s on the table is a huge step in the right direction,” Michel said.
“For the first time we are making a step to facilitate investment by European companies and also, based on this proposed agreement, there are commitments expressed by the Chinese authorities on social rights,” he added.
The EU executive and China gave political approval for a major investment pact late last year, after seven years of painstaking negotiations, thanks to a final push by leading export economy Germany.
However, the European Commission has suspended efforts to secure ratification of the deal after Beijing slapped sanctions and visa bans on European lawmakers and academics.
The CAI has also raised eyebrows in Washington, where Biden’s team hopes to rally the US’ traditional allies to help contain China’s rise.
Last week, far from seeking closer ties with the Chinese economy, Biden expanded a blacklist of Chinese firms that are off limits to US investors.
Michel said Europe is not being naive in dealings with China and that it wants to work with Washington in an alliance of liberal democracies.
“In a nutshell, what’s the position of the United States?” he asked, rhetorically. “It’s very similar to the European one. Explaining China is a competitor, but it’s also important to cooperate with China when it’s necessary.”
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