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Watch: EU summit with China 'frank and open', says Von der Leyen

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By Alice Tidey
European Council President Charles Michel prepares to speak with China's President Xi Jinping during a videoconference summit in Brussels, Sept. 14, 2020.
European Council President Charles Michel prepares to speak with China's President Xi Jinping during a videoconference summit in Brussels, Sept. 14, 2020.   -   Copyright  Yves Herman, Pool via AP   -  

The European Union summit with China was "frank and open", European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said, stressing however that "a lot still remains to be done" particularly with regards to access to the Chinese market.

The negotiations between the Commission chief, Council President Charles Michel, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chinese President Xi Jinping ended with promises to speed up negotiations on an investment treaty before the end of the year.

Trade and climate change were the main topics discussed during the summit, held virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But EU leaders stressed that they have also called on Beijing to refrain from unilateral actions in the South China Sea, raised grave concerns about the National Security Law in Hong Kong and about the alleged persecution of the Uighur minority.

Pressure has been mounting on Europe to stand up more to China especially after it was revealed that an EU report on disinformation had been watered down following diplomatic influence from Beijing.

Watch the press conference in the video player above.

'Rebalancing the asymmetry'

Von der Leyen described the dialogue as "frank and open, and constructive and intense".

She said that "engagement at the political level" on trade, climate, and digital has been stepped but stressed that "a lot, a lot still remains to be done" particularly when it comes to sustainable development and market access in key sectors including telecommunications, IT, and health.

"Our investors just face too many barriers in these key sectors," the Commission head said, adding that it's just "not a question of meeting halfway" but one of China "rebalancing the asymmetry".

"We need China to move on these two issues (...) if we are to achieve our shared objective of finalising negotiations before the end of the year," she went on.

Merkel, who said she was "very pleased" with the dialogue, stressed that "cooperation with China must be based on reciprocity and fair competition" and that both sides "acknowledge the importance of multilateralism and the importance of rules".

A bilateral agreement to protect 100 European Geographical Indications (GIs) in China and 100 Chinese GIs in the EU was also signed.

Among the EU GIs to be protected in China are products including Cava, Champagne, Feta, Irish whisky, Munchener Beer, Polska Wodka, Porto and Proscuitto di Parma while China food items such as Pixian Dou ban, Anji Bai Cha and Panjin Da Mi will be protected in the EU.

In 2019, China was the third destination for EU agri-food products, reaching €14.5 billion. It is also the second destination of EU exports of products protected as GIs.

'Grave concerns'

Michel praised the summit as "another step forward in forging a more balanced relationship with China" but also said the EU used the opportunity to "raise grave concerns" about the national security law in Hong Kong.

"Democratic voices in Hong Kong should be heard, rights protected, and autonomy preserved. We called on China to keep their promises to the people of Hong Kong and the international community," he said.

The law passed by China's top legislature in late June aims to curb subversive, secessionist and terrorist activities as well as foreign intervention in Hong Kong. It has been strongly condemned by human rights organisations and western countries which have since suspended extradition treaties to the former British territory.

Michel also said that the three EU chiefs had "reiterated our concerns over China’s treatment of minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet, and the treatment of human rights defenders and journalists."

"We asked for access for independent observers to Xinjiang and we called for the release of the arbitrarily detained Swedish citizen Gui Minhai and two Canadian citizens," he added.