Budapest, Hungary – The German government has lashed out against Hungary’s decision to veto an EU statement criticising China’s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
Hungary vetoes EU statement on China
Gathered in Brussels, the EU’s Foreign Ministers were forced to drop plans to issue a statement denouncing China’s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong and Beijing’s new security law after the veto of the Hungarian government. Western governments, including the US and the UK, have criticised China’s new security law, which they say violates the agreement giving the former British colony a high degree of autonomy in its relations with mainland China.
“We believe that issuing a new statement on the subject is not necessary,” the Hungarian Foreign Ministry said. “Considering that the European Union has already accepted numerous statements regarding Hong Kong, the standpoint of the EU is clear for everyone by now.”
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Chinese President Xi Jinping reportedly talked on the phone between the two EU meetings. According to China’s Foreign Ministry, Beijing “highly appreciates” Hungary’s “firm adherence to a friendly policy towards China”, and Orban told Xi that Hungary “attaches great importance to its relations with China.”
The draft law vetoed by Hungary had reportedly already been watered down to convince Budapest to give its backing.
In late March, the EU and China imposed tit-for-tat sanctions over accusations of Beijing’s abuses of human rights against the Muslim Uighur community in the north-western Xinjiang province. While Hungary approved the sanctions, the first since an arms embargo after the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, its Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto immediately called them “pointless, self-promoting and harmful” and hosted top Chinese defence officials only days after.
Hungarian veto on Hong Kong “absolutely incomprehensible”, slams Germany
A number of EU officials and diplomats in private lashed out at Hungary’s veto, criticising Viktor Orban’s government for prioritizing its cozy relations with Beijing over EU unity and human rights concerns. “Regretfully, they [Hungary] chose China over the EU,” a diplomat was quoted as saying by the EU Observer.
The EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrel warned that “we [will] have to take positions that don’t reflect unanimity” if the next attempt to reach a consensus on this issue fails, without elaborating but suggesting EU member states could try to bypass Hungary’s veto.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on Monday called Hungary’s veto “absolutely incomprehensible”. “I think everybody can work out for themselves where the reasons are – because there are good relations between China and Hungary,” Maas said, referring to the close political and economic ties between Budapest and Beijing, a key pillar of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s controversial “eastern opening” foreign policy.
“It is important that especially toward China […] the European Union speaks with one voice. Unfortunately, this has been prevented by Hungary,” Germany’s top diplomat stated.
The Germany-Hungary-China triangle
This is not the first time Hungary, one of the main recipients of Chinese investments in Central and Eastern Europe, has led efforts to water down or veto EU statements critical of China – whether on Uighur persecution, South China Sea tensions or Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.
“If you’re looking for the most visible end of blocking the EU on China, then it’s Hungary, but it is Germany that is blocking this general push within the EU to be more assertive towards China,” nuanced Jakub Jakobowski, a senior fellow at the OSW Centre for Eastern Studies in Warsaw, highlighting the importance of its economic heft (Germany accounts for roughly one-quarter of Hungary’s exports and imports).
“Obviously, Germany has all the tools it needs it it wanted to force Hungary to change positions. But do they really want to do that?” Janka Oertel, a China specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations, was quoted as saying by the South China Morning Post, reminding that large segments of Germany’s political and business elites were not in favour of escalating tensions with the world’s second-largest economy.
The issue has once more highlighted the EU’s lack of unity on the global stage and the bloc’s difficulty in confronting China, its second most important trading partner, spotlighting the fragility of its “soft power” influence in the area of foreign policy, where decisions require the unanimous approval of all 27 member states.