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Progressive members of the European Parliament – including some allies of French President Emmanuel Macron – push back Europe’s two largest political groups for failing to insist Beijing must sign a pact to end forced labor as a precondition for the ratification of an investment agreement.
With the blessing of EU countries, the European Commission reached an investment-in-principle agreement with China late last year, but quickly faced stiff criticism for failing to demand tough measures against human rights violations such as forced labor among the Uyghur Muslim minority in the western region of Xinjiang.
The European Parliament has become the main battleground that could block agreement on these rights issues. Critics of the deal want China to sign at least two forced labor conventions under the International Labor Organization (ILO) as a prerequisite for ratifying the deal, but fear political consensus will does not withdraw from this conditionality and drifts. towards an agreement on a “timetable” for China to engage with the ILO. Critics fear that China could use this “chronological” loophole to delay the process and avoid any steps on Uyghur “training” camps once the EU-China deal is ratified.
All eyes are now on whether the two largest groupings in the European Parliament – the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the center-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) – will sign the the ILO a prerequisite. So far, they haven’t.
The latest round of the debate came after two of the top trade members of the European Parliament, Bernd Lange of the S&D and Iuliu Winkler of the EPP, wrote to the Chinese ambassador in Brussels to suggest that the Chinese leaders take action. “concrete steps” towards ratifying ILO conventions against forced labor, ahead of the vote.
“It all depends on what they mean by ‘concrete steps’. This cannot be defined as good intentions or a state of mind. A timetable will not be satisfactory,” Stéphane Séjourné, French member of the group, told POLITICO. Renew Europe and close ally of Macron. “I would recommend that the [EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment] should be conditional on ratification by the ILO. “
Marie-Pierre Vedrenne, French lawmaker colleague at Renew Europe, agreed that it would be necessary for China to ratify the ILO charter. “China must ratify these ILO conventions. And not only ratify them, but also implement them, ”she said at an event organized by the Polish Institute of International Affairs and the Montaigne Institute.
Among parliamentary groups, the Greens have been the most outspoken and Reinhard Bütikofer, chairman of the Parliament’s delegation on relations with China, opposes the pact on concerns ranging from labor rights to the poisoning of relations with United States. insist that we should only deal with the ratification of the CAI after the Chinese side has actually taken action, ”he said.
The United Nations has estimated that a million Uyghurs have been placed in internment camps that the Chinese authorities call “vocational training centers”. The United States has banned imports of cotton and tomatoes from the region, while the United Kingdom has put in place a due diligence system requiring companies to remove products from forced labor zones from their supply chains. . Europe has not imposed any equivalent trade restrictions.
According to the Comprehensive Investment Agreement, China has agreed to make only “continuous and sustained efforts” to ratify ILO conventions, drawing criticism from European lawmakers and Chinese observers who have blamed the EU to give Beijing a free hand. China has consistently rejected the accusation that forced labor exists in the country.
The S&D and EPP heavyweights, however, stopped short of saying that China should adhere to the ILO’s requirement before ratification.
Asked by POLITICO to develop its letter to the Chinese ambassador, Lange, who chairs Parliament’s trade committee, adopted the chronological approach. He said China should come up with “a binding implementation plan with concrete dates and concrete steps.”
“CAI is not the instrument – it is an instrument,” Lange said. “We need to think about China’s strategy as a whole.”
He warned, however, that the ratification could take on a broader political dimension if Beijing’s stance towards Hong Kong and Taiwan weighed on MPs’ sentiment.
When asked if signing the ILO should be a prerequisite, Winkler did not respond directly, but said it was still early in the process and MPs needed to do more research to determine what leverage the ILO could offer.
“I think now we are just organizing our review,” he said. “So I think now is the time to uncover the content, understand the context and build the necessary framework for all the work we need to do in the months to come.”
Séjourné, Macron’s ally, said it was important to ensure the preservation of human rights and argued that the deal with China matters more than just an investment pact.
“Any trade or investment agreement is a political agreement, it implies a power dynamic between the two parties. And this is where the [European Parliament] needs to push for actions, not words when it comes to the Uyghur people and freedom fighters in Hong Kong, ”he said.
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