EU and China in ‘breakthrough’ trade talks on World Trade Organization reform

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (C), President of the European Council Donald Tusk (R), and European commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (L) give a press conference at the end of EU-China Summit meeting at the European Council in Brussels, Belgium, 09 April 2019. EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET

NRUSSELS.- The European Union and China have strengthened their relationship in “breakthrough” trade talks at a summit on Tuesday and committed to reforms World Trade Organization reforms.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang arrived at the EU Council headquarters in Brussels and met with the presidents of the European Council and Commission, Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker.

Tusk said the negotiations on international trade had been “difficult but ultimately fruitful” and described the talks as a “breakthrough” in joint press conference.

«For the first time, China has committed to Europe in this key priority for the reform of the World Trade Organization,» he added.

The EU and China are strategic partners as well as rivals in the field of competitiveness, as recognized by the European Commission in a recent document.

They do more than one billion euros in trade every day and are both important partners to the other.

But Europeans have voiced concerns about issues such as the recognition of their geographical indications, Chinese state subsidies to industry, investments in European critical infrastructure through initiatives such as its new Silk Road project, officially known as the Belt and Road Initiative, or the crucial role that Chinese companies such as the Huawei technology in the development of future 5G mobile networks.

The EU leaders highlighted their commitments to human rights in the summit on Tuesday.

Tusk said the issue is “as important as economic interest” and added: “I underlined the need to maintain the human rights dialogue and expressed that the EU has serious concerns with regards to human rights.”

Juncker described the EU partnership with China as “more important than ever before” and said Tuesday’s talks were a “big step in the right direction”.

He added that the proposed WTO reforms will aim to “level the global playing field”.

The Chinese leader said the results were “fruitful” and added: “We believe our shared interests override our difficulties and benefit the people of both sides.”

He urged the EU to grant «equal treatment» to Chinese companies and vowed that his country will continue to be more open economically and give reciprocity to European companies.

«It is certain that China will continue to open up, opening up has brought us prosperity. The companies that come to China to invest and operate will receive the same treatment,» he added.

Li also said that he expects a “high-level China-EU investment agreement before the end of next year”.

EU leaders previously put on a united front after China’s efforts to find investors for its Silk Road trade project, which Italy has already independently signed.

The Belt and Road initiative was a huge infrastructure project launched by China in 2013 to improve connections with Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Italy’s support for it was a diplomatic victory for China, whose ambitious plan for an international network of ports, roads, railways and pipelines has faced criticism for the opacity of some deals.

The country was the first member of the Group of Seven major advanced economies to sign up to the initiative.

Many Western governments see the plan as a Chinese push for geopolitical influence, not just for business.

Italy’s bilateral embrace of China’s prestige project irritated many of its EU partners when the bloc was looking for a more robust collective stance toward Beijing. Italian officials stressed that the agreement was not legally binding and does not weaken Italy’s commitment to its Western political and security alliances.

In response, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and the European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker put on a united front when they sat down for discussions with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Paris in March.

US diplomats were also critical of the move, warning that China’s plans could increase its influence over other countries and weaken Western cohesion.

The bid by Huawei to supply Europe with 5G mobile-internet equipment sparked security fears in Washington, which urged its allies to exclude the Chinese company from sensitive infrastructure. EFE-EPA

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