The Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, or CAI, which would make it easier for E.U. and Chinese companies to invest in each other’s economies, was scuppered earlier this year amid tit-for-tat sanctions over Beijing’s treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
According to a Chinese summary and state-run media reports about the Monday video conference among the three leaders, Merkel expressed hope that the deal would be approved “as soon as possible,” while Macron “supports the conclusion of the E.U.-China investment agreement.”
It isn’t unusual for government readouts of calls between foreign leaders to focus on different issues. But a German summary of the conference was just one paragraph long and said only that the three leaders had “exchanged views” on E.U.-China relations, including international trade.
An account from the Élysée Palace, meanwhile, said merely that Macron and Merkel reaffirmed European requests for access to the Chinese market. The five-paragraph French news release went into greater detail on other issues discussed, including the environment and aid to Africa.
It also included a rebuke of China’s human rights record that was unmentioned in Chinese accounts.
“The President of the Republic and the Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany expressed their serious concerns about the human rights situation in China and reiterated their demands regarding the fight against forced labor,” the Élysée said.
“If there was a big push on the European side [for reviving the agreement], it would be a little surprising to me that the two European leaders are not being more enthusiastic,” said Ian Ja Chong, an international relations expert at the National University of Singapore. He added there wasn’t sufficient information from the readouts to determine what Macron and Merkel really said about the investment accord.
While it is possible Merkel, who will leave office this year, and Macron were publicly playing down what they said to Xi out of fear of a backlash in Europe, Chong said, Beijing could also be putting a positive spin on the call as it seeks to move away from the “wolf warrior” diplomacy of the past few years and present a more “lovable” image to the world.
Negotiations over the agreement began in 2014. Europe saw it as a means to win greater access to China’s tightly controlled market, while China wanted to boost investment from Europe.
After seven years of talks, the deal finally appeared to be on the cusp of an agreement in December. But over the span of a few days, reports of an emerging consensus gave way to news that negotiators had hit snags, as European officials voiced concern about forced labor in China and a senior aide to President-elect Joe Biden appeared to urge Europe to pump the brakes.
The outlook darkened further in March, when the E.U. imposed sanctions on Chinese officials for alleged human rights violations in the western province of Xinjiang. (The parliament of the Netherlands, an E.U. member, has called China’s treatment of its Uyghur people a “genocide.”) Beijing responded with sanctions of its own, including against members of the European Parliament — the body that would need to ratify the investment agreement.
In May, the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly to freeze consideration of the agreement until China lifts the sanctions. As leaders of the E.U.’s two largest economies, Macron and Merkel have significant influence over the bloc’s policy, but the parliament is a directly elected body.
China had hoped to finish the deal before the swearing-in of Biden, who campaigned on a pledge to reengage with Europe and rally allies in response to an increasingly assertive China. Macron and Merkel have both tried to repair relations with the United States under Biden following a rocky relationship with Donald Trump, which could explain their accounts of the call with Xi, Chong said.
China’s seemingly rosier account of the trilateral call suggests there soon may be renewed talks over reviving the frozen investment agreement, Chong said. But even if Merkel and Macron were to make a public push in support of the deal, the sanctions still would stand in the way.