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Analysts See Shift in EU’s Approach Toward Dealing With China  

European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen leave following a virtual summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Brussels, Belgium June 22, 2020.

A videoconference summit this week between leaders from China and the European Union had a wide-ranging agenda including trade, climate change, cybersecurity and the COVID-19 pandemic, but it ended without agreements, or even a joint statement.

Instead, European officials released a statement that analysts say is the clearest sign yet that the relationship between the two massive economies is entering a new phase.

“Engaging and cooperating with China is both an opportunity and a necessity,” said Charles Michel, president of the European Council. “But at the same time, we have to recognize that we do not share the same values, political systems or approach to multilateralism.”

Erik Brattberg, director of the Europe Program and a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that in the past the EU has prioritized economic and trade issues over human rights and other issues that are sensitive for Beijing.

“I think the summit confirms this approach is probably coming to an end,” Brattberg said.

“My impression is that Europe is really in a transition period in designing and shaping of China strategy that is realistic, that is looking toward efficiency,” said Alice Ekman, the senior analyst in charge of the Asia portfolio at the European Union Institute for Security Studies.

During the videoconference Monday with Chinese leaders, Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, brought up human rights issues in Xinjiang and Tibet, as well as Beijing's spreading of false information about the coronavirus. She also blamed China for hacking computer systems and hospital networks in European countries, saying such actions would not be tolerated.

Von der Leyen said she and Michel made it clear that implementing national security laws in Hong Kong not only violated Hong Kong’s Basic Law but also violated China's international commitments.

"I have never seen such strong statements from the EU side on human rights issues, for instance, and on Hong Kong," Ekman said.

Hal Brands, a professor of global affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, told VOA that while the EU has been critical of China's practices it has not yet taken any practical action.

He cited Hong Kong as one example.

The EU has “essentially declined to impose meaningful sanctions as a result of the Hong Kong push. The EU basically voiced concerns but didn’t take any concrete actions,” Brands said. “So the Chinese may calculate that while there may be diplomatic criticism, and the U.S. may impose some penalties, the overall damage will be bearable.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on the EU to make the choice between freedom and China’s tyranny June 19 at the Copenhagen democracy summit.

“I don’t believe that there’s a uniquely ‘European’ or ‘American’ way to face this choice,” Pompeo said. “There’s also no way to straddle these alternatives without abandoning who we are. Democracies that are dependent on authoritarians are not worthy of their name.”

Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.