EU presses China on market access, human rights

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European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen during an online press conference with European Council President Charles Michel and German Chancellor Angela Merkel following an EU-China virtual summit at the European Council building in Brussels, Monday, Sept. 14, 2020. Michel, Merkel and Von der Leyen had talks in a videoconference with China's President Xi Jinping. (Yves Herman/Pool Photo via AP)

BRUSSELS – The European Union on Monday urged China to further open its markets up to European companies and prove that it really does want to secure an investment agreement this year with the bloc, its largest trading partner.

After a two-hour video conference, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, EU Council President Charles Michel and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said they also pressed Chinese President Xi Jinping on human rights and the need for international cooperation to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.

As an economic competitor to China, the 27-nation EU has struggled to balance its commercial interests against its concerns for human rights in the country, particularly as Beijing has grown more assertive in recent years.

Von der Leyen, who leads the EU’s executive body that manages trade on behalf of the member countries, noted that trade and investment talks have been stepped up but despite some recent progress “a lot, a lot, still remains to be done.”

“The European market is open, and European companies must have fair and equal access to the Chinese market in return,” she told reporters. Xi did not take part in the post-summit news conference.

Citing a lack of opportunities in China's communications, IT, biotech and health care sectors, she said “we see that our investors just face too many barriers in these key sectors, and for us, with market access, it’s not just a question of meeting halfway, but it’s a question of rebalancing the asymmetry.”

“China has to convince us that it is worth having an investment agreement,” von der Leyen said, acknowledging the struggle involved in securing one by the end of the year as the Europeans had hoped.

Turning to human rights issues, Michel said the three had a “quite intense discussion” with Xi, notably on China's restive far western province of Xinjiang, where authorities have cracked down on local Uighers. Michel said Xi appears willing to allow visits into the region by diplomats to check what’s happening. Merkel said the details must still be thrashed out.