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EU, China mandate high level dialogue to advance ‘market access’ conversation

Today’s widely anticipated EU-China summit held via videoconference mainly offered a channel of direct communication between the leaders of the Council and the European Commission on the one hand and China’s president and vice-premier on the other, amidst rising political rifts between the two sides that have been building up since 2021.

The meeting was mainly about agreeing to disagree on many areas and spell out each other’s positions on a range of issues, mainly Ukraine. But the fine print shows there are efforts to get the economic conversation back on track.

The war in Ukraine was the main point of discussion brought up by the European Union. But it hardly features in Chinese readouts of the meeting.

The conversation was “frank and open”, said commission president Ursula von der Leyen in remarks to the press.”We exchanged very clearly opposing views”, she added. “China has an influence on Russia. And therefore we expect China to take its responsibility to end this war.”

The Chinese readouts show that China does not share the analysis of the EU of the systemic importance for the war for the global and European order. Instead China has reiterated its view that the EU should move away from what it sees as a United States world view.

China resents the sanctions imposed by the West on Russia. The EU has called on China to “at least not interfere” with them, as von der Leyen put it.

The EU also brought up its frustrations about China’s continued trade blockade imposed on Lithuania. Its leaders stated the legal case it recently brought to the WTO in this matter would be litigated unless Beijing changes its policy.

Despite these deep rifts, there was an effort to find common ground.

“The EU pointed to the need to address long-standing concerns related to market access and the investment environment in China, with the view to ensuring a balanced trade and economic relationship,” said a council press released after the meeting.

“Leaders mandated the High-level Trade and Economic Dialogue to find concrete ways to progress on these issues before the summer,” it says.

The HLED is a regular meeting between Chinese vice-premiers and commission executive vice-presidents which are used to help ease negotiations and: or help pave the way for agreements or joint conclusions at summits.

No side explicitly mentioned the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, the bilateral agreement concluded in December 2020. Its ratification is on ice following reciprocal sanctions related to the EU’s disapproval of China’s treatment of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang province.

But the mandating of the HLED, combined with a concomitant announcement that bilateral meetings of a long-standing EU-China dialogue on human rights will resume shortly shows that Brussels and Beijing are seeking ways to find a path out of the current impasse over CAI and other areas of economic concern to both sides.

Geographical Indications agreement to be updated

Note that the EU and China also “agreed to expand the EU-China Agreement on the Protection of Geographical Indications”, a deal concluded in November 2019. 

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