The European Union and China have struck a political deal on a comprehensive investment agreement after seven years of talks, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced on Wednesday.
“The EU has the largest single market in the world. We are open for business, but we are attached to reciprocity, level playing field and values,” von der Leyen said on Twitter.
“Today, the EU and China concluded in principle negotiations on an investment agreement,” she said.
The announcement comes after Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke to French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and von der Leyen via a video conference on Wednesday.
The agreement still needs to be ratified – a process that could last several months, according to an EU official.
The agreement would offer European companies access to previously closed or tightly regulated Chinese markets and ease Chinese investment in Europe.
It would also set out provisions for a level playing field to prevent state assistance from undercutting competition, and sustainable development provisions.
In the deal, China also pledges to take steps to ratify International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions on forced labour, according to an internal document released Monday by the Commission to member states.
But for Human Rights Watch, this promise rang hollow.
“This is the same government that for decades has blatantly violated its commitments under multiple, varied, and freely undertaken international legal obligations; in just the past year it has shredded the Sino-British Joint Declaration, resisted independent investigations into Covid-19 and horrific human rights violations in Xinjiang, and worked hard to weaken international human rights law,” Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, told dpa.
“Its human rights commitments aren’t just devoid of credibility – they are used to mask grave abuses. No one should agree to that,” she said.
European businesses – being one of the main beneficiaries of the agreement – were more optimistic.
According to the paper, China has agreed in principle to open markets such as new energy vehicles, private health care, and financial and cloud services to European investment.
“We eagerly await the release of the details of this political agreement, and hope to find a robust and bold conclusion,” Joerg Wuttke, president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, said. “A strong agreement would be a powerful statement to show that constructive engagement can produce results.”
Echoing the assessment, BusinessEurope said access to Chinese markets was “critical” to creating a balance in the Chinese-European relationship.
“We still need to assess the content of the agreement, but we are confident it will mitigate current unbalances in our bilateral relationship, bringing additional market access and legal certainty for our investors,” the lobby group said in a press release.
Peter Altmaier, Germany’s economy minister, said reaching the agreement was a great success. For European companies, it meant greater access to markets and more legal security, as well as a better competitive environment in China.
Xi, meanwhile, emphasized that the agreement could contribute to the recovery of the world economy and promote global trade, according to the state-run Xinhua new agency.
The agreement was struck as China this year surpassed the United States as the EU’s top trading partner, with bilateral trade in the first nine months reaching 516.8 billion dollars, overtaking the US and EU’s 501 billion dollars’ worth of trade.
Critics say the deal will complicate US president-elect Joe Biden’s plans to reinstate partnerships with European allies and further rein in China’s influence.