After demonstrating unity for the protection of European industries against Chinese unfair market practices, the European Union has failed to agree on an effective approach to the problem of human rights abuses in China.

The EU and China held the 35th round of their human rights dialogue in Brussels last week. The two-day meeting, attended by low-level government delegations on both sides, came after Greece’s decision to block an EU declaration at the recent session of the United Nations Human Right Council condemning Beijing’s human-rights record.

Greece has been the recipient of growing Chinese investment in the past few years. In particular, China’s Cosco Shipping has a majority stake in the port of Piraeus, which in Beijing’s plan should become a key trans-shipment hub for its Belt and Road infrastructure initiative to boost trade between China, Europe, and Africa.

Many suspect that debt-ridden Athens did not want to irk its generous foreign investor while still under financial scrutiny by the EU and the International Monetary Fund. The Greek move has left EU institutions in an awkward situation. The European bloc’s direct dialogue with Beijing has hardly helped dispel lingering doubts about the EU’s stated commitment to dealing with the Chinese crackdown on political and religious dissidents.

Human rights in China worsening — EU officials

During the meeting, EU officials voiced concern over the “deteriorating situation for civil and political rights in China.” They raised issues such as the detention and conviction of a considerable number of Chinese human rights defenders and lawyers, the imposition of restrictions on freedom of expression and the use of arbitrary detention and torture.

EU authorities also pointed the finger at freedom of religion and belief, the condition of minorities, not least in Tibet and Xinjiang, and the right of peaceful assembly and association. Further, they called for all human rights defenders and advocates imprisoned by Beijing to be released, including political prisoners, human right lawyers, supporters of freedom of expression and association, religious figures and Tibetan activists.

The problem is that the EU’s enunciation of China’s human-rights violations leads nowhere — in practical terms — if not matched by action. On the eve of the bilateral dialogue in Brussels, a dozen humanitarian organizations, spearheaded by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, called on the EU to suspend this “meaningless” format of interaction with China — a meeting that only leads to yet another meeting, they say.

EU urged to sharpen its dialogue with Beijing

The EU parliament, which is less affected by state-to-state dynamics and more willing to bash China than the bloc’s executive bodies (the EU Commission and the European Council), has leveled the same accusations. On June 22, Pier Antonio Panzeri, chair of the EU Parliament’s subcommittee on human rights, urged the EU institutions and member states to revise and sharpen the human rights dialogue with Beijing so that it could be “more results-oriented and based on clear benchmarks”.

The EU makes the protection of human rights a pillar of its foreign action, but past confrontations with Beijing over the issue have prompted the European grouping to take a more cautious stance. Germany is currently the only EU country that puts pressure on the Chinese government to extract concessions on human rights.

Even the United States under President Donald Trump — who has never conveyed the impression he is actually interested in questioning political and religious repression in China or elsewhere — has taken a harsher tone than the EU against China’s treatment of human rights defenders like Liu Xiaobo, recently released from prison on medical parole for treatment of liver cancer.

China’s economic ties weaken EU solidarity

The Greek veto to the EU’s condemnation at the UN of China’s human-rights abuses has shown that Beijing has its own assets — i.e. a number of semi-developed EU members from southern and eastern Europe with which it has close economic ties — to try to undermine from within EU’s initiatives that it views as harmful to its national interest.

While this strategy of “divide and rule” might not work to stop EU’s action against Chinese unfair trade and investment policies, it seems to produce better results with human rights.

Public opinion supports the criticism of China to protect European workers, but principled battles for human rights that could cost small and medium EU countries Chinese investment and loans are greeted with unease or, at most, indifference by the affected people.

With roughly 19 million citizens unemployed, which many in Europe consider the most pressing human-rights problem, few Europeans will blame the EU for its weak position against China’s abuse of human rights.