Europe is not China’s “punching bag,” European Parliament President David Sassoli told POLITICO on Tuesday, vowing retaliation against Beijing a day after it hit the EU with unexpectedly harsh sanctions.
But Sassoli declined to say whether that punishment might include spiking an EU-China investment pact, as some MEPs are urging.
The latest EU-China dust-up started on Monday when the EU and several of its allies approved sanctions against four Chinese officials for their role in widespread allegations of human rights abuses against the Uyghurs, a minority population in the Xinjiang region. Almost immediately, China struck back, sanctioning five MEPs, the Parliament’s human rights subcommittee, an EU Council committee and several European NGOs.
The response quickly set off a growing chorus of MEPs demanding that their colleagues not ratify a pending EU-China investment agreement.
China “must not think that we are a punching bag,” Sassoli said in an interview from the Parliament in Brussels. “Europe is not a punching bag. It is a great worldwide actor, a great market. We are an area of freedom … and there is no intimidation we can accept.”
But he stopped short of backing the calls to kill the EU-China investment pact, which was pushed through late last year despite opposition from some in the EU who argued the agreement as inappropriate given slave-labor concerns in China.
“I believe the examination of the Parliament will be very thorough,” Sassoli said. “But as we have shown also this year, we make trade deals that are dependent upon the respect of fundamental values, and this will be done also with China.”
It’s unclear how the other sanctioned EU institutions might respond to China’s decision.
Sassoli’s cautionary tone came just as the center-right European People’s Party, the Parliament’s biggest political party, on Tuesday said it still expects to vote on ratifying the EU-China trade deal.
Still, Sassoli vowed some retaliation was in order, insisting his assembly will respond to China’s “provocation,” because “the idea of defending human rights, for us, it is inescapable.”
His pledge might not be enough for the MEPs who were vocal on Monday. Several political groups including the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, as well as in the liberal Renew Europe group, all spoke out on Monday against moving forward on the investment agreement.
“The lifting of sanctions against MEPs is a pre-condition for us to enter into talks with the Chinese government on the investment deal. We will not be intimidated, we will not be silenced,” said Kathleen Van Brempt, a Belgian MEP and the S&D’s spokesperson on trade.
Jakob Hanke Vela contributed reporting.
Want more analysis from POLITICO? POLITICO Pro is our premium intelligence service for professionals. From financial services to trade, technology, cybersecurity and more, Pro delivers real time intelligence, deep insight and breaking scoops you need to keep one step ahead. Email [email protected] to request a complimentary trial.