By Robin Emmott
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – European Union foreign ministers agreed to toughen their strategy on China on Friday to counter Beijing’s increasingly assertive diplomacy against a backdrop of concern about China’s new security law for Hong Kong.
Amid European criticism of Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, EU foreign ministers met via video link for their first discussion before two EU-China summits this year, one expected at the end of June and another in September.
“We need and are ready to have an open and honest dialogue with China,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told a news conference after the meeting, where ministers expressed “grave concern” over China’s plans to curtail freedoms in Hong Kong.
“There’s a lack of progress on negotiations (on market access for European companies in China),” said Borrell, who said the bloc would now prepare a new EU strategy document on China.
The EU is trying to find a middle path between U.S.-Chinese rivalry, but the bloc is also divided internally over China, with some countries benefiting from its largesse.
Three senior diplomats said there was increasing frustration with what the EU says is Beijing’s failure to make good on an April 2019 agreement that China reciprocate the broad market access that Chinese companies enjoy in Europe.
Next month, the European Commission, the EU executive, is expected to come forward with guidelines on ways for EU governments to potentially limit China’s access to public tenders in Europe, seen as a way to pressure Beijing.
This week, German ambassadors told their counterparts at two separate meetings that host Germany could delay the summit between European Union leaders and China’s President Xi Jinping in September because of the impasse in investment negotiations.
However, another EU diplomat said Berlin is working on hosting a summit in the town of Leipzig on Sept. 14. A German government spokesman declined to comment. Borrell said the Leipzig summit was “still on the agenda.”
(Additional reporting by Sabine Siebold in Berlin; Editing by Kirsten Donovan and Frances Kerry)