EU, China push to seal investment deal by end of year

BRUSSELS (AFP) – The European Union (EU) and China said on Friday they were closing in on an investment agreement after seven years of painstaking negotiations.

The two economic powerhouses are keen to tie up the landmark pact – which would allow greater access to their lucrative markets – before the end of the year.

“Negotiations have entered the last stretch,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told journalists in Beijing.

In Brussels, EU officials briefed ambassadors from the bloc’s 27 member states that “95 per cent” of the deal had been wrapped up, sources said.

The deal would be a major boost for both sides and strengthen economic ties before the arrival of United States (US) president-elect Joe Biden in the White House in January, as Beijing squares off with Washington over trade.

Europe hopes to conclude a “political agreement” by the end of the year, but hurdles remain over China’s commitment to labour rights, the EU sources said.

“We are not quite there yet but it’s definitely feasible that, if things move forward as they are moving now, that we can conclude still this year,” EU Executive Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis told Bloomberg TV.

Brussels insists it wants to secure the same treatment for its firms in China as it grants Beijing and will not swallow unfavourable terms just to get the years-long negotiations over the line.

“The EU remains committed to the end of year deadline for conclusion of the negotiations, provided we have a deal worth having,” an EU Commission spokesman said.

“We will not put speed over substance.”

A senior EU official said the Chinese had become “more flexible than ever” and “sent signals suggesting that they want an agreement before the new American administration is in place”.

Brussels – currently mired in the painful process of negotiating a post-Brexit trade deal with Britain – has long sought to get barriers dropped for its investors in China in key areas such as emerging digital technologies.

The head of the EU chamber of commerce in Beijing Joerg Wuttke told AFP that negotiators had “apparently made great strides on market access”.

As part of the accord the EU has also been pushing Beijing to reinforce respect for intellectual property, end obligations to transfer technology, reduce subsidies for public enterprises and improve on climate commitments.

Europe’s focus on negotiations with China has come as outgoing US President Donald Trump engaged in a bitter trade dispute with Beijing during his term in office.

In the latest salvo, Washington on Friday announced it had imposed export controls on China’s biggest chipmaker, SMIC.

Brussels has preferred to forge a middle path, treating Beijing as both a potential partner and a “systemic rival”, and pushing for changes to the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The EU has struggled for unity in the face of China’s increasing global assertiveness under President Xi Jinping, with some member states urging a tougher stance on rights and the environment, and others preferring to boost trade.

Leading economic power Germany, which holds the bloc’s rotating presidency until the end of the year, had made securing the deal a priority of its time at the helm.

A spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Friday “progress was made in the negotiation round in December, but the talks are ongoing”.

“The goal remains to have an ambitious agreement between China and the EU,” Steffen Seibert said.