What the European Parliament's Hong Kong resolution really means
Across the Western world, anti-China sentiment is on the rise. It's a notable feature of the last days of the former Trump administration in the United States, which accused China – with Trump's usual flair for hyperbole – of "genocide." In an age of information and misinformation, it often becomes difficult for the public to know what to believe and how much they can trust what they watch and read, given the growing tendency toward political spin from supposedly "independent" media.
On January 21, the European Parliament joined in the criticism with more carefully chosen words than Trump's. It passed a resolution concerning the Hong Kong Special Administrative Area (HKSAR) of China. That resolution, highly critical of China, was passed by a large majority.
To understand what is going on and what the resolution means, it's important to have a basic understanding of how the European Union functions. In the simplest terms, the European Commission is a politicized civil service; it drafts EU legislation and drives forward the agenda. The European Council, containing representatives of the member states' governments, provides the overall direction. The European Parliament scrutinizes and amends the legislation proposed by the Commission.
In addition to its legislative role, the European Parliament offers its opinion on various issues. For example, it might request legislation, foreign policy action or new measures against climate change. Many of these requests are, by definition, aspirational. They may or may not fall within actions allowed under the current EU treaties, but they're intended to show a direction and hint at the kind of legislation the Parliament will accept or reject, approve or block.
The resolution on Hong Kong is precisely such a non-binding resolution, drafted by the European Parliament on its own initiative. When I was a member of the European Parliament, several such resolutions were passed pretty much every month – highlighting a real or perceived human rights issue. These resolutions are passed at the end of the monthly plenary sessions, receiving a cursory debate before the vote.
On the very same day that it adopted the resolution on Hong Kong, the European Parliament also passed resolutions on Vietnam, Russia, Venezuela and Turkey. Overanalyzing such resolutions might be unnecessary, given their frequency. Many MEPs consider them symbolic, and they don't form a large part of their day-to-day work either.
Such resolutions tend to be expansive because of the nature of the political groupings in the European Parliament. The European Parliament seeks the broadest possible consensus among its various factions, leading to the groups merging each text to produce a single joint text. In so doing, it tends to cover a broader range of issues than originally intended.
To understand the impact of this particular resolution, we must distinguish between its direct and indirect effects. In my view, it has no direct effect. It is not legally binding and finishes with an instruction to its president to "forward" a copy of the resolution to leading representatives of various nations.
The European Parliament urges the council and commission to take a tough stance on China in relation to the HKSAR, floating and raising other issues as it does so. Commissioner Helena Dalli was present for the debate, hearing the Parliament's words and explaining the commission's position.
It's notable that both Dalli and the European Parliament's resolution mentioned trade. Dalli's words were couched in diplomatic language, referring to the meeting in December that "concluded negotiations in principle on a comprehensive agreement on investment with China but also to raise concern on Hong Kong." The Parliament's resolution "reminds the Commission" that it will take Hong Kong "into account" when asked to endorse the investment agreement or future trade deals with China.
The resolution is effectively a veiled diplomatic threat. The European Parliament has long believed in the politicization of trade. It utilizes trade negotiations to attempt to drive its preferred social changes in countries worldwide. Such an approach frequently leads to significant delays in trade negotiations. In this case, the European Parliament seeks to drive a change in the Chinese government's policy regarding the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment.
An aggressive approach seeking to bully a nation into changing policy may work with smaller economies, but it is doubtful whether it would have any significant impact upon China. I expect this issue to come back to the fore when the European Parliament is asked to ratify the future agreement. But, ultimately, I believe it's unlikely that the European Parliament would set themselves on a collision course with their national governments.
Jonathan Arnott is a former member of the European Parliament.