European Council President Charles Michel is expected to focus on human rights and trade issues during a phone call Friday with Chinese leader Xi Jinping amid strained relations between Brussels and Beijing, according to an EU official.
EU-China relations have been deteriorating over the past year over Beijing’s treatment of its Muslim Uyghur minority in the Xinjiang region as well as a showdown with Lithuania over Taiwan. Some EU countries including Lithuania have been calling for a tougher approach to China as a result.
On Sunday, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell vowed to deal with Beijing “from a position of unity and strength.”
An EU diplomat said Michel would urge Xi to reconsider sanctions Beijing imposed on EU politicians after the bloc itself slapped sanctions on Chinese officials linked to forced labor in Xinjiang. China’s retaliation effectively froze work to finalize Brussels’ investment deal with Beijing agreed late last year. Another diplomat said the call shows the EU’s need to formulate its own China policies “from the point of strategic autonomy.” Michel’s spokesman declined to comment.
Reinhard Bütikofer, the leading MEP on China affairs and one of those on Beijing’s sanctions list, called the planned call a “positive” development. “I read it as a signal that #Beijing begins to understand an important lesson: they can’t make real progress by just talking to individual member states’ leaders,” Bütikofer tweeted.
The call also comes amid reports that Xi will not attend an upcoming G20 summit in Rome in person later this month, which could make it more difficult to strike a deal on climate commitments.