European high representative for foreign affairs and security policy and vice-president of the European Commission Josep Borrell: China is “a competitor, a partner, an ally, a rival, everything at the same time”. Photograph: Stephanie Lecocq

Hamstrung EU expresses concern over Hong Kong and China


The European Union has expressed “grave concern” over a move by Beijing to tighten its grip on Hong Kong, as it struggles to find a middle way in a global tug of war between Beijing and Washington.

It comes after China moved ahead with legislation to impose a security law on Hong Kong that diplomats and activists in the semi-autonomous region fear will bring it increasingly under Beijing’s control, eroding political freedoms and its status as a global hub of business.

EU foreign ministers met over video conference on Friday to discuss how to respond, after the United States joined Australia, Canada and Britain in condemning the move. The US declared it no longer viewed the former British colony as autonomous from China.

After the ministers met, the bloc’s foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, issued a statement expressing “grave concern” at the move by Beijing, saying it was not in line with the law under which Britain handed over control of Hong Kong in 1997.

“This decision further calls into question China’s will to uphold its international commitments. We will raise the issue in our continuing dialogue with China,” the statement read.

“We believe that this seriously risks undermining the one-country, two-systems principle,” Mr Borrell told reporters. “The autonomy of Hong Kong has really been weakened by this decision.”

Chinese clout

Several member states have become alarmed at Beijing’s increasing assertiveness and its apparent willingness to use its huge economic clout to exert political pressure, which has fuelled concern towards Chinese takeovers of key companies and strategically important infrastructure.

On the back of trade tensions between Beijing and Washington, the coronavirus pandemic has also become an issue of geopolitical rivalry, with Chinese officials promoting a conspiracy theory that the virus originated in the US, while President Donald Trump has dubbed the disease the “Chinese virus”.

The EU is struggling to find a middle way between the two global economic powerhouses, wary of provoking additional fallout in the face of a downturn expected to the worst in a century and ahead of an EU-China summit scheduled to take place later this year if the pandemic allows. The EU’s diplomatic service has been forced twice in recent weeks to deny watering down texts under pressure from Beijing.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting of foreign ministers, Mr Borrell described China as “a competitor, a partner, an ally, a rival, everything at the same time”.

Economic behemoth

“It’s a complex relationship that cannot be reduced to a single dimension,” he said.

The Asian economic behemoth is a major trade partner of the EU, and Brussels views it as a vital ally in combating climate change; the 27 members of the bloc have so far struggled to come together for a unified response. 

The US has indicated it will impose some mild additional sanctions on China in response to the move on Hong Kong. But just one EU member state called for sanctions at the meeting of foreign ministers, according to Mr Borrell, who would not say which country had made the appeal.

The EU “will continue trying to put pressure on the Chinese authorities”, making them aware that their actions towards Hong Kong “will affect the way we deal with some of the issues of mutual interest”, Mr Borrell told reporters.

“Our relationship with China is based on mutual respect and trust but this decision calls this into question.”