The EU’s response to Hong Kong’s national security law

The EU’s response to Hong Kong’s national security law

During a time in which Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy is at stake, as a proud Hongkonger, I am delighted to see the gradual response from the international community. The European Union (EU) is not an exception in this respect. However, due to the particularities of this supranational organisation, its position is multifaceted and deserves further explanation.

One of the most recent developments is the resolution regarding Hong Kong, adopted by the European Parliament. It is the second time within a year, in which the Parliament has expressed its deep concerns over the situation in the city. Following the unprecedented waves of protests against the extradition bill in 2019 and on the present occasion relating to the national security law, which was proposed and passed by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee in China and has been widely criticised as a step undermining a founding principle of Hong Kong, “one country, two systems”. If both of these resolutions from the European Parliament are not put into perspective, their implication and importance may be exaggerated.

Under the EU’s legal order, “resolution”, together with “recommendation” and “opinion”, is a non-binding legal instrument, unlike “regulation”, “directive” and “decision”. In other words, parties named in the adopted texts have no legal obligation to act according to the resolution. Indeed, it functions as a political and symbolic gesture from the only directly elected European institution, signifying not only the seriousness of the recent developments, but also its stance with the people of Hong Kong. This act attracts media attention around the globe, followed with eye-catching headlines, and even a rebuttal from the Chinese mission to the EU. Nonetheless, the real-life effect of a resolution should not be over-estimated because of the legal constraints and the following constitutional arrangements at the European level.

EU foreign and security policy primarily remains under the so-called intergovernmental method. The European Council and the Council, which consists of the heads of governments or state of the EU member states and a representative at ministerial level from each member state respectively, have the core competency and decisive role in this policy area. The European Parliament only participates in the decision-making process to a limited extent and is excluded from any legislative activity. This institutional structure signals the necessity for anyone calling for solidarity with Hong Kong, to adopt a multi-level approach to Europe, focusing on individual member states in particular.

Within the 8-page newly adopted resolution, member states are called upon to take action seven times and the Council is called upon to take action in six areas. An actor worth noting, who is named 5 times in the resolution is the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, or commonly-known as the foreign policy chief of the EU, Josep Borrell. Here we should recall that he does not have equivalent powers to foreign ministers at the national level. This difference results in the ambiguous positions of the EU, taking China as an inter-related example in this case.

On 25 May 2020, Josep Borrell stated “We need a more robust strategy for China”. This sound bite seems to suggest a more assertive approach towards the emerging power from Asia. Yet, 4 days later, after a video conference with foreign affairs ministers of the member states, he openly rejected the possibility of sanctioning China, regardless of the worrying legislative proposal pushed by Beijing and tailor-made for Hong Kong. If sanctions are not on the list of foreign policy instruments available in EU-China relations, it simply implies that the EU is prepared to maintain the bilateral relationship at the expense of European interests and values, without leveraging its powers, in terms of global trade, as well as transforming verbal condemnations into actions.

On top of these divergences, the EU-China summit held last week exemplifies once more how carefully we should interpret the Union’s position in regards to the changing circumstances in Hong Kong. On the one hand, wording used by EU officials is tough while commenting on the controversial law, including “grave concerns” and “very negative consequences” if it is approved. On the other hand, tangible or possible solutions that the EU could put in place, such as when the law is enforced in the city, are missing. In essence, the EU speaking the language of power, as promised by the new Commission and High Representative still has a significantly long way to go.

The EU is a complex supranational organisation based on mutual interests and shared values amongst member states. Unlike other policy fields, foreign affairs remain to a considerable extent a sovereign task and is limited at the European level. If expressing concern is the only option on the table and the “lowest common denominator” which can be agreed upon by member states, readers should not expect much more from the continent.

This article does not intend to throw a wet blanket on the resolutions, as both indicate support from Europe and a determination to defend human rights beyond its border. It merely reminds everyone that we must recognise and understand the actions and inactions of the EU, and when calling for assistance from this superpower, these particularities must be kept in mind.

DISCLAIMER: THE VIEWS AND OPINIONS EXPRESSED IN THIS ARTICLE ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR AND DO NOT REPRESENT THE VIEWS OF THE PLATFORM.

(Image credit: Pixabay)

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