The European Union’s plans to take new measures against Beijing’s roll-out of sweeping electoral reforms in the city have been withdrawn after failing to gain support from all 27 member states.
The EU had planned to issue a statement on Hong Kong at Monday’s Foreign Affairs Council, the monthly meeting of its 27 foreign ministers.
But the draft text was withdrawn from the agenda of a planning meeting held on Friday, signalling there was no agreement and meaning they cannot be adopted on Monday, according to two people familiar with the matter.
A senior EU official said that the issue could be expected to be revisited in May for that month’s council, saying it was “high on our agenda, different working groups are discussing different possibilities for EU policy in the future, and pretty soon we will come up with some policy or intentions”.
“It is a source of deep concern for the European Union that the status of Hong Kong will change, we attach enormous importance to the one country, two systems, and we think that Hong Kong is a litmus test for Chinese policy,” the person said.
Reuters reported that Hungary had opposed the measures, which included the suspension of extradition treaties between 10 EU member states and China, and plans to welcome “highly qualified” Hong Kong workers and students to the bloc.
But even less controversial items, which were believed to have been finalised and which included statements promoting freedom of expression and more engagement with civil society, have now been removed from the agenda.
Other measures included a visit “when the situation allows” of high-level officials to Hong Kong to “engage with key stakeholders”, and a report chronicling the evolution of the rule of law in the city, according to a draft text in circulation earlier this week.
The South China Morning Post reported on Thursday that the EU was having trouble getting all member states to agree to the move. No motion can be passed by the Foreign Affairs Council without unanimous support.
One diplomat said that “the big problem we’re pushing into Friday is not language, it’s more to do with whether Hungary will back the thing or not”.
Hungary’s government is staunchly pro-Beijing and has typically been the stumbling block in agreeing new policy towards China. Many were surprised that the EU had managed to convince Budapest to support the first sanctions on China since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown that were issued last month.
Chinese President Xi Jinping held a virtual summit with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday, at which there was no mention of issues regarding Hong Kong, sanctions or human rights, according to official readouts from the Chinese and German governments.
Beijing’s readout focused on detailed cooperation on climate issues, as well as broadening economic cooperation.
“It is hoped that both parties will work together to promote the approval and entry into force of the EU-China Investment Agreement as soon as possible,” it said.
News of the EU’s failure to secure unanimous backing for even the most light-touch measures on Hong Kong came on another day of drama in the city, with a spate of high-profile pro-democracy figures jailed for their roles in organising unauthorised assemblies in 2019.
Hong Kong publishing tycoon Jimmy Lai Chee-ying was jailed for 14 months for his role in two unauthorised assemblies that took place during 2019’s anti-government protests, while four former opposition lawmakers who joined one or both of the demonstrations were also sent to prison.
Democratic Party founding chairman Martin Lee Chu-ming, dubbed Hong Kong’s “father of democracy”, was given a suspended 11-month sentence in relation to the march on August 18, 2019.
Some members of the European Parliament made statements slamming the verdicts and calling for the EU to act in response.
“I condemn in strongest terms the absurd sentencing of Jimmy Lai, Martin Lee and other pro-democratic leaders in Hong Kong. Words are no longer enough, EU leaders must impose sanctions on Hong Kong officials, as demanded by the European Parliament,” said Miriam Lexmann, a Slovakian MEP who appeared on China’s retaliatory sanctions list in March.