Try as it may, Europe cannot patch up its internal differences on relations with China. Embarrassing differences, as to who was backing what at the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva this week and accusations that those with the biggest commercial interests in China are the most reluctant to stick their necks out, are just the latest outbreak of the European Union's (EU) recurrent sickness - disunity on foreign policy. Such disunity led to prevarication over the break-up of the former Yugoslavia and rows over policy on Iraq and Albania, and is just as perceptible when it comes to China. But just as some European statements might provoke the wrath of China, so the EU is very aware of the fact that its own real disunity risks making it a laughing stock. Dutch Foreign Minister Hans van Mierlo (the Netherlands holds the current EU presidency) wrote to colleagues in the 15-nation group last week accusing them of double standards on human rights in relation to China - a criticism directed at France which leads the 'let's-be-gentle-to-Beijing' group. He warned that the differences were damaging the EU's global credibility. They attempted to paper over the differences when the European Parliament debated Hong Kong this week but it fooled very few. The result was an amazingly bland statement from the Council of Ministers - which represents the governments of members. The Dutch junior foreign minister was left with a speech marked only by its attempts to soothe: there were numerous references to confidence in China delivering the goods; and an indirect swipe at those 'who do not themselves live in Hong Kong' who appeared to have more concern about events in the territory than its residents. There was no mention of the provisional legislature or the new limitations on basic freedoms. 'It sounds as if it was written in Paris,' carped one member of the European Parliament. The disparate interests and diverse views on sovereignty in the field of foreign relations show no sign of diminishing and are a real blow to the EU's global influence. There are many in the European Parliament who would relish seeing it emulate the US Congress over China. Some who would like to see the EU press for sanctions against Beijing, even slow down the process of China's entry into the World Trade Organisation should it break the Joint Declaration or the Basic Law. 'If the European Union is to be a leading player in international affairs it must command respect and put human rights before commercial interest,' said one Irish Member of Parliament in frustration. In contrast, the executive European Commission is not as indebted to governments in practice as the Council of Ministers, so it feels more at liberty to hand out tough words - this week it spelt out steps for the monitoring of human rights in a post-handover Hong Kong. This would require good links with Hong Kong non-governmental organisations but the commission, of course, rejects any charges that this might amount to internal interference or be blocked by Beijing, pointing to the autonomy enshrined within the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law. It is now working on a document, to be ready within a month, setting out its view on present and future relations with Hong Kong. Some hope it will lead to an 'association agreement' with the future Special Administrative Region - similar to those existing between the EU and some Eastern European countries today - adding a further degree of international recognition of Hong Kong's autonomy.