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Europe: EU Squabbles Over China Policy

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 9 April 1997 (RFE/RL) - Just how difficult it is for the European Union to shape a common foreign policy stance has been demonstrated once again in the past few days as the EU's seven-year-old policy toward Communist China fell apart at the insistence of one of its 15 member states -- France.

The results of the French veto have been multiple: disarray in the Union, a loss of credibility for the organization's much-publicized image as a defender of human rights, a slap on the EU's wrist from the United States and, not least, much joy in Beijing.

At a meeting in the Netherlands of EU foreign ministers early this week, France blocked a draft joint resolution criticizing China's human-rights record. The resolution was due to be introduced later this week at the annual meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva. Similar EU resolutions on China, as well as on other states seen as major human-rights violators, have been submitted to the UN Commission each year since 1989. But this time France broke the consensus, saying China was making progress on human rights and that it favored dialogue rather than confrontation with Beijing.

French Foreign Minister Herve de Charette told his colleagues on Monday that "China has to be treated differently than other, less important states." But France's veto was widely seen as motivated by trade rather than diplomatic concerns. President Jacques Chirac is due to visit Beijing in six weeks and is hoping to sell 75 Airbus airplanes, manufactured by a European consortium of France, Germany and Britain, worth thousands of millions of dollars.

In addition, French Defense Minister Charles Millon has been meeting with his counterpart in the Chinese capital this week. Some analysts believe that Millon's visit indicates that France may soon unilaterally break the ban on arms sales to China imposed by the EU and the United States in 1989. The arms embargo was initiated after Beijing's brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tianenmen Square in June of that year.

By the end of the EU foreign ministers' meeting, Germany, Spain and Italy had aligned themselves with France. Their neighborly solidarity allowed de Charette to boast that the four nations opposing public condemnation of China represent two-thirds of the EU's total population of 375 million. "That is a very large majority of the people," he said.

Not so, insisted Holland's Foreign Minister Hans van Mierlo, whose country currently presides over the EU. Van Mierlo said that Germany, Spain and Italy had been ready to endorse an EU anti-China motion if France had softened its stance somewhat. The blunt-spoken Dutchman warned of what he called "the risk of double standards by the EU toward powerful countries and smaller, not powerful countries." Van Mierlo added: "If I were a political prisoner in China, I'd be a very disappointed political prisoner."

EU member Denmark also publicly challenged the French view and, despite angry threats of reprisal from Beijing, decided to introduce the vetoed EU draft resolution in its own name at the UN's Geneva meeting. Foreign Minister Niels Helvig Petersen disputed the French view that Beijing had made significant human-rights progress. He said there were still major problems in Chinese laws on freedom of expression and assembly.

Yesterday, as the EU quarrel over China widened, both the Union's own Executive Commission and the U.S. Government voiced their "regrets" at the Union's failure to introduce a joint resolution in Geneva and pledged to support Denmark's initiative. A (anonymous) Commission spokesman in Brussels said that "the EU will show solidarity with Denmark." In Washington, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns criticized what he called "divisions" within the EU and promised the U.S. would co-sponsor the Danish resolution. Responding to both of Denmark's supporters, Petersen said late yesterday that his country's resolution would also be backed by 10 other EU members.

The lesson to be learned from all this EU squabbling is not a new one. The old wisdom about the difficulty, if not impossibility, of 15 sovereign and very heterogeneous nations agreeing on a common foreign policy has been reaffirmed. That should make leaders of the 10 Central and East European states now seeking rapid membership in the Union to reflect on what sort of a joint foreign-policy posture a 25-nation EU might eventually fashion.