Business-minded mainland and EU leaders were probably relieved to have been spared an awkward stand-off over Tibet and human rights issues yesterday, and to be able to share positive outlooks for economic discussions of unprecedented depth and breadth. Flanked by a delegation of nine EU commissioners, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso arrived in Beijing on Thursday afternoon for a three-day exchange, meeting Premier Wen Jiabao yesterday. The two leaders called the meetings 'unprecedented' in size - with ministers scheduled to have talks on areas from the environment and energy, to customs and consumer protection - and described the talks as 'frank and candid'. The EU president also met President Hu Jintao yesterday afternoon and inaugurated an exhibition on climate change. Meanwhile, Vice-Premier Wang Qishan and EU trade commissioner Peter Mandelson started the First China-EU High-Level Economic and Trade Dialogue. The dialogue, first pledged at the 10th China-EU Summit in November, puts the EU on a par with the United States and provides a mechanism for regular high-level dialogue between the two sides over increasingly complex and troubled bilateral trade relations. According to mainland customs authorities, the country's trade surplus with the EU jumped 23 per cent year on year in the first three months of this year to US$34.09 billion, while the EU put its trade deficit with China last year at nearly US$251 billion. Mr Barroso's long-planned return to the mainland coincided with a sensitive moment in relations with Europe, strained over Tibet and disruptions to the Olympic torch relay. The assumption of the rotating EU presidency in July by France, which has taken a tough stance over the crackdown in Tibet and human rights concerns ahead of the Olympics, also raised concerns that politics would trouble Sino-EU relations, after the trade imbalance, currency issues and intellectual property rights seized centre stage in previous bilateral conversations. French President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Thursday he would push for a EU-wide consensus on whether to boycott the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. But Mr Barroso earlier reaffirmed his opposition to a boycott of the Games, which 'must be a celebration for the youth of the world'. After the morning meeting, both Mr Wen and Mr Barroso were keen to stress the importance of a closer 'comprehensive strategic partnership' between the mainland and EU. Mr Wen said the two sides had more than 40 dialogue mechanisms, including one on human rights, and the fact that their bilateral relations leapfrogged from a constructive partnership to a comprehensive partnership to a comprehensive strategic partnership within 10 years showed 'a pace of unprecedented growth'. 'Our mutual benefits by far outweigh the conflicts. As long as we respect, trust and learn from each other, there will surely be a better future for the Sino-EU relationship,' he said. The leaders said the partnership was important to the world. 'When I consider the global challenges we are confronted with today, none of them is likely to see a constructive solution without strong co-operation between the EU and China,' Mr Barroso said, repeating twice that the main focus of the meeting was climate change and sustainable development. Mr Mandelson described the meeting with Mr Wang, who took over from Wu Yi as China's top negotiator on trade issues as 'very productive and interesting', with unexpectedly intense talks on Sino-EU co-operation in Africa and a 'lively discussion' on intellectual property rights, on top of other topics like trade, technology transfer and consumer protection. 'In my time as trade commissioner, I can honestly say that today's discussions were more rigorous, more realistic and showed a greater depth of understanding and commitment than any set of discussions that I've had previously on visits to Beijing,' Mr Mandelson said.