Europe reluctant to do more about Hong Kong for fear of Beijing’s reaction, say diplomats
So far the EU has limited itself to calls for restraint and ‘political support’ but it is not expected to follow the US lead by implementing specific measures. One diplomat said ‘at the end of the day, I fear that the economic relationship is just too important’
Europe is unlikely to take any concrete action over the escalating situation in Hong Kong, in part because of concerns about its economic relationship with Beijing, diplomats from the continent have said.
Pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong have been seeking support from both America and Europe, and on Tuesday the US Senate passed a bill that could suspend the city’s special economic status and sanction officials deemed to have undermined its autonomy.
But diplomats said that while the EU would continue to provide “political support”, it felt constrained by economic considerations.
“The EU has been very unified in the statements it has made, but in reality there is little more that can be done,” said one diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
In July the European Parliament passed a non-binding resolution that called for an independent investigation into police violence against protesters in Hong Kong. It also urged Brussels to impose export controls on Hong Kong to prevent “access to technologies used to violate basic rights”.
The EU has consistently called for a de-escalation of violence and a return to dialogue, and on Monday it responded to the siege at Hong Kong Polytechnic University by saying police use of force should be “strictly proportionate” and urging all sides to exercise restraint.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab was also due to discuss the situation with his German and French counterparts, Heiko Maas and Jean-Yves Le Drian, in Brussels on Wednesday.
However, diplomats said Hong Kong campaigners visiting Europe were not “getting the results” they had hoped for, adding that fear of retaliation from China – which issued an angry response to the proposed US legislation – made governments and the EU reluctant to move beyond making statements.
“At the end of the day, I fear that the economic relationship with China is just too important,” one said.
High-profile activists who have visited Europe in recent months include Joshua Wong Chi-fung, who met Maas and members of the German parliament in September to rally support for greater democracy in the city.
A delegation of Hong Kong pro-democracy activists – including former opposition lawmaker Alan Leong Kah-kit and trade unionist Lee Cheuk-yan – also visited Brussels in October to highlight claims of police brutality.
Lee said that action was “simply a matter of political will”, adding that European leaders must decide whether economic ties with China trumped the human rights situation in Hong Kong.
“It depends on what their priorities are,” he said, arguing that if they were concerned “about human rights in Hong Kong, and to de-escalate the violence of the police and support Hong Kong, then they have every capacity to talk to Xi Jinping or the Chinese Communist Party about where they stand”.
Lee also argued that Europe could prevent the export and maintenance of police equipment, such as the French water cannons and armoured cars being used by the city’s police.
Thomas Eder, a researcher at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin, said the EU would continue to watch the use of force, particularly by the city’s police force.
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“Violent methods by protesters are a separate issue. Brussels has made it clear that it considers any violence unacceptable,” he said.
“It is also clear, however, that the police are in a much stronger position looking at both resources and ability to escalate.”
Eder added that while the EU could not act as a mediator it could support credible local or regional efforts to de-escalate the situation.
“The main issue for Europe will be whether Hong Kong’s rule of law and protection of basic freedoms – and thus ‘one country, two systems’ – remain credible,” he said.
Eder said that if Hong Kong’s economy and rule of law were no longer credible, Europe’s “more intimate relationship” with the city compared with the Chinese mainland would have to be re-evaluated – both in terms of economics but also aspects such as extradition treaties.