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EC President Ursula von der Leyen is expected to lead the European side in its upcoming summit with China. Photo: Xinhua

China-EU summit on investment deal, Covid-19 likely to start next month, sources say

  • European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and other senior officials to discuss key issues via series of online meetings, according to insiders
  • Brussels and Beijing have expressed their desire to conclude a comprehensive investment agreement by year’s end but clashes over coronavirus may hamper negotiations
China and the European Union are likely to hold their delayed summit early next month via a series of online meetings, sources familiar with the issue said, as Beijing seeks to stabilise its turbulent relationship with Brussels amid ongoing tensions with the United States.
The summit will be Beijing’s first major diplomatic event since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and looks set to come hot on the heels of its annual legislative session, which gets under way on May 22 after a two-month delay.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel could hold a videoconference with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang as early as the first week of June, according to the sources, who declined to be identified.

Leaders and senior officials from the two sides have been in frequent contact in recent months, sharing knowledge about the coronavirus and cooperating on the development of vaccines, as well as accelerating their negotiations of a comprehensive agreement on investment, which began in 2013.

EU Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan says talks on an investment deal with China are progressing well. Photo: Reuters
During a telephone conversation on Monday, EU Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan told Chinese Commerce Minister Zhong Shan that Brussels was satisfied with the progress of the talks and was willing to work towards concluding the deal within the year, according to a statement from the commerce ministry in Beijing.

In the same call, EU Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton told Zhong that the EU was keen to maintain close contact with China to protect international supply chains and promote economic recovery.

Despite the upbeat tone of their latest talks, the EU has in the past appealed to China to show more ambition in the investment talks, with some of its officials suggesting that the substance of the deal is more important than hitting deadlines.

The bloc was unlikely to agree to a compromised deal, the sources said.

The EU and China have been sharing knowledge about the coronavirus and cooperating on the development of vaccines. Photo: Xinhua

While Covid-19 and the investment deal are likely to top the agenda for the upcoming summit, one of the sources said that the exact details of the talks were still under discussion.

Although good trade relations between the EU and China are essential to a speedy global economic recovery, Brussels is keen to ensure that any deal on investment with Beijing guarantees reciprocity on market access and a more even playing field for European companies operating in China.

As well as pushing for the reform of China’s state-owned enterprises, the EU is pressing for the start of negotiations on the content of the labour and environmental protection clauses of the investment deal, though one of the sources said that this was a subject Beijing had shown some reluctance to discuss in any great detail.

Such uncertainty could scupper any chances of completing the deal before the end of the year, while the recent clashes between the EU and China might even delay the start of the summit, the sources said.

Ties between Beijing and Brussels have grown tense in recent weeks. On May 1, Von der Leyen urged China to cooperate with an investigation into the origin of the coronavirus and pledged to redefine the EU’s relationship with China, which the bloc has in the past referred to as a systemic rival and strategic competitor.
Although the EU has been pushing the World Health Organisation to lead an investigation into the global health crisis, last week its diplomatic arm admitted that a letter signed by the EU ambassador to Beijing and the envoys to China of the bloc’s 27 members was published by state newspaper China Daily , only after “part of a sentence related to the origins and spread of the coronavirus was removed”.

Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign affairs minister, said the bloc would never again bow to Chinese censorship.

China is keen to strengthen ties with the EU amid fresh tensions with the United States. After 18 months of a trade war, Beijing and Washington in January agreed an interim deal to ease hostilities. Since then, however, the two sides have become embroiled in a war of words over each other’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and the origins of the coronavirus.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: China-EU summit likely to start in June after delay