EU in talks over Hong Kong national security law retaliation

France and Germany have proposed the first EU countermeasures in retaliation for China’s imposition of a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong.

The three-pronged response would aim to boost the territory’s civil society by limiting exports of equipment used in internal repression, making it easier for activists facing political repression to stay long-term in the EU and expanding educational scholarships for Hong Kongers in Europe, said European diplomats.

The ideas stop well short of sanctions on China and are a more tentative first step towards the “very negative consequences” Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, threatened last month if Beijing pressed ahead with the national security law. The proposals have attracted support from other EU member states and are likely to be discussed at a meeting of the bloc’s foreign ministers on Monday, diplomats said.

“The idea is: ‘How can we support Hong Kong civil society,’” said one European official of the proposals. “We see also the interests of European business and citizens in Hong Kong at stake — and there could be consequences also for European citizens outside Hong Kong, because the law has an extraterritorial scope.”

The Franco-German proposals have emerged now because many EU countries have studied the law more fully since its publication last week and concluded that its impact will be severe, diplomats said. The proposed response comes after Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, drew criticism at home for failing to take a tougher line on China over Hong Kong.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen last month promised ‘very negative consequences’ if Beijing pressed ahead with imposing a national security law on Hong Kong European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen last month promised ‘very negative consequences’ if Beijing pressed ahead with imposing a national security law on Hong Kong © Yves Herman/POOL/AFP/Getty

The ideas are open to amendment, officials stressed, not least because areas such as the right of Hong Kongers to stay in Europe are in the control of national governments. The clampdown on equipment that could be used in security force repression would essentially be an extension of an embargo imposed on mainland China after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

The EU and other western powers say the national security law breaches China’s commitment to give Hong Kong a large degree of autonomy after the handover from British rule in 1997. Under the new law, crimes such as terrorism, subversion, secession and collusion with foreign elements will attract penalties of up to life imprisonment.

The Europeans are in contact with other states over their Hong Kong response, including countries in Asia, as well as the US and UK, diplomats say. The UK would have been a strong voice in the EU Hong Kong debate but it quit the bloc in January.

EU decision making on Beijing is complicated, not least because 12 member states are part of the 17+1 grouping of China and European countries. But differences within the EU have been narrowing, due to a mix of disappointment about the results of some Chinese investments and alarm at the security implications of the involvement of companies such as Huawei in sensitive sectors such as telecommunications.

The Hong Kong situation has also emerged as an important test of how the EU handles the competing pressures of its China policy. The bloc is trying to deal with Beijing in a variety of ways: as a partner in some spheres, a competitor in others and a rival in terms of its system of governance.

The EU is pushing hard for agreement on a long-awaited investment treaty with China and has started to work up economic countermeasures for Beijing’s alleged failure to offer European companies the same access Chinese businesses enjoy in Europe.

Brussels last month unveiled plans to prevent foreign state-subsidised companies from undercutting EU rivals when bidding in the highly lucrative public procurement market, an intensification of its effort to target alleged unfair dealing by Beijing and other capitals.