The President of the European Parliament has ordered an investigation into whether members of an informal Chinese ‘friendship group’ violated integrity rules. But was that group, despite all its efforts, of any use to China at all?
What is this article about?
- Over the past 15 years, China has tried to boost its image within the European Parliament by sponsoring trips and social gatherings of a so-called EU-China Friendship Group. Follow the Money investigated whether these influence attempts had any effect.
Why is this important?
- At the end of 2020, the EU and China signed an agreement in principle on investor protection and improved market access for European investors in China. The European Parliament has the power to approve or block this potentially far-reaching agreement.
How did FTM investigate this?
- Follow the Money asked the European Parliament for access to documents related to the EU-China Friendship Group. We also analysed the voting behaviour of MEPs when criticism of China was being proposed.
MEPs who accepted drinks and snacks at a European-Chinese party may be facing repercussions. David Sassoli, the President of the European Parliament, has launched an investigation into the so-called EU-China Friendship Group according to a letter that his senior official sent to Follow the Money, in response to our request for access to documents.
The friendship group, an unofficial group of MEPs interested in China founded in 2006, held a meeting in Strasbourg in October 2019. According to the news website Politico Europe, the refreshments were paid for by the Chinese EU embassy. According to statements by MEPs, members of the friendship group have, on several occasions, been invited on trips to China at the expense of the Chinese state.
According to extensive research by the Czech think-tank Sinopsis, the activities of the EU-China Friendship Group, such as trips to China, created opportunities for the Chinese state media to record positive statements made by European politicians. In particular, the group’s former president, British Nirj Deva, repeatedly made statements that Beijing gladly welcomed. In the European Parliament, he called China ‘not a threat but an opportunity’, questioned an Uyghur activist’s speech, and characterised the idea that China had colonial aspirations as ‘absolute nonsense’.
The Chinese Gai Lin, Deva’s parliamentary assistant at the time, claims to have founded the group
The statements are used as a propaganda tool for the Chinese public. At the same time, it is beneficial for China when MEPs speak about China in the European media in a positive or neutral way. The Chinese Gai Lin, Deva’s parliamentary assistant at the time, claims to have founded the group, according to what Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg wrote in their book Hidden Hand. Hamilton and Ohlberg state that the group’s objective was to help MEPs ’understand’ China better through ‘positive propaganda’.
This is part of a broader strategy, previously identified by the Belgian secret service. In an August 2018 report, they wrote that Chinese intelligence services ‘are [looking] for all sorts of opportunities to influence European policymakers, hoping that they will adopt a pro-China stance.’
Like other friendship groups, the EU-China Friendship Group has an odd status. Officially, such groups do not exist, but the European Parliament recognises them as a concept. The European Parliament’s website states that ‘MEPs occasionally form unofficial groups to discuss relations with non-EU countries. These “friendship groups”, sometimes sponsored by lobbyists or foreign governments, are not official European Parliament organisations.’
Derk Jan Eppink (JA21) was appointed vice-president of the friendship group during his previous term
According to our information, only one Dutch MEP is (or has been) a member of the EU-China Friendship Group: Derk Jan Eppink (JA21), who confirmed his involvement in a written response to Follow the Money. At a reception in Strasbourg, ‘in the presence of Chinese diplomats [Eppink] also spoke a few words.’
Eppink states that he was appointed vice-president of the friendship group during his previous term because he speaks Mandarin. ‘It became my job to regale Chinese delegations to the European Parliament with a friendly speech,’ Eppink says. When he returned as an MEP in 2019, he was once again appointed. But apart from a visit by a Chinese delegation to the Parliament’s Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee, Eppink says the group organised few activities during that period. A trip to China was cancelled due to the pandemic, and relations between the EU and China had deteriorated.
In fact, at the end of last year, the current president of the EU-China Friendship Group, Czechian Jan Zahradil, announced that all activities had been ‘suspended’. He revealed this during a hearing of a parliamentary investigative committee that is examining foreign interference in democratic processes within the EU, which also covered the Sinopsis investigation.
EP President Sassoli still wants to know if the Code of Conduct for MEPs has been violated and has ordered an investigation
Later, Zahradil stressed in a tweet that he had made this decision independently and had done so ‘to counter the spread of fake news, conspiracy theories and spy games by activists, media and intelligence sources’. He wrote that the ‘paranoia about China’ reminded him of the political climate in communist Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and 1980s.
However, Parliament President Sassoli still wants to know if the Code of Conduct for Members of the European Parliament has been violated. He has instructed the Advisory Committee on the conduct of Members to check whether any donations have been made that members of the friendship group should have reported. This committee consists of five MEPs and has been appointed to assess ‘suspected cases of infringement’ of the code of conduct.
There is no official list of (former) members of the friendship group. Follow the Money asked the European Parliament for all documents related to the EU-China Friendship Group. There were hardly any. ‘Given that the EU-China Friendship Group is not an official parliamentary body, [the European Parliament] has no documents relating to its activities,’ Klaus Welle, Secretary-General of the European Parliament, wrote in an official response to FTM’s freedom of information request.
Welle found only four documents relating to the friendship group in the European Parliament’s systems. The main one was a letter from Parliament President Sassoli to the head of the Advisory Committee; the other three were attached to it. Secretary-General Welle refused to disclose these documents. In his explanation, he revealed that Sassoli had requested the Advisory Committee to carry out an investigation; interim publication would have hampered that investigation. It is not clear which MEPs are being investigated.
In his explanation to FTM, Welle also referred to the ‘politically charged context’, in which, on the one hand, the press and ‘some politicians’ criticised the friendship group, and on the other hand, Zahradril, the president of the friendship group, maintained that all rules had been duly observed.
MEPs must abide by a code of conduct regarding ‘financial interests and conflicts of interest’, which requires ‘any support, whether financial or in terms of staff or material’ from third parties to be reported. When the Advisory Committee investigating the conduct of MEPs concludes that a MEP has violated the code, it advises the President of the Parliament on possible sanctions.
The President then determines whether and how to punish the offence. The Rules of Procedure provide for various sanctions, such as a reprimand or withholding the subsistence allowance to which MEPs are entitled between two and thirty days. The subsistence allowance (also known as the daily allowance) is 324 euro, so the sanction could amount to almost 10,000 euro. Another option is to deny the MEP access to confidential information for up to one year.
None of these sanctions would affect Eppink, if he were found to have committed an offence. He has left the EP: he was third on the JA21 Dutch electoral list and was elected to the Lower House. He was sworn in on 31 March 2021.
The question remains as to whether MEPs will in effect be punished if they have transgressed. In its report of the previous parliamentary term (2014-2019), the Advisory Committee wrote that it is preferable to resolve conduct code violations with the MEP concerned. The ‘risk’ of the President ’having to resort to sanctions’ was to be reduced. If an MEP quickly ‘rectifies’ the violation – for example, by disclosing a donation or an interest later on – then ‘the Advisory Committee [is] of the opinion that no further follow-up is needed’.
It is evident that China is trying to exert political influence. But has this friendship group succeeded? Has the EU-China Friendship Group, in its 15 years of existence, managed to persuade (some) MEPs to adopt a ‘pro-China stance’?
In all fairness, that is a difficult question to answer. Measuring political influence is a complex matter, and politicians’ motivations can rarely be reduced to a single cause. To assess the political influence of the EU-China Friendship Group, one would need to know how politicians would have voted if the friendship group had not existed.
Still, we can gain some insight into the group’s influence by looking at the voting behaviour of MEPs in recent years. If the contingent of MEPs critical of China had shrunk during the time when the friendship group was active, then this correlation would at least be interesting. And although there is no official list of members, several MEPs are known to have been members of the friendship group. How did they vote on issues concerning China?
Dutch MEPs and China
Starting with ourselves: the voting behaviour of Dutch MEPs.
Resolutions condemning human rights violations in China receive broad support. Only the PVV consistently votes against such resolutions. This has little to do with China, by the way, and everything to do with their attitude towards the European Union in general: the PVV believes that the EU should not have its own foreign policy at all. ‘We want member states to be able to determine their relations with other countries individually,’ PVV member Marcel de Graaff explains in an email to Follow the Money. ‘This does not only apply to China but to every country about which the European Parliament feels the need to express an opinion.’
The three MEPs from the Forum for Democracy/JA21, who abstained from voting on China resolutions, gave a similar explanation. ‘We abstain from voting on foreign policy as a matter of principle. We believe that this authority belongs to the member states. In exceptional circumstances, we may act differently.’ An example of the latter occurred in January 2021, when JA21 supported a broad new resolution concerning Hong Kong.
Voting on a resolution takes place in stages: first, there is a draft text, which is then often negotiated by the main political groups, followed by MEPs voting on specific changes (amendments) and finally, the European Parliament votes on the text as a whole.
Follow the Money also looked at the support for specific amendments. For example, in June 2020, the Parliament voted on a long paragraph calling on the European Commission to use the negotiations of an EU-China investment agreement to put pressure on China regarding the Hong Kong issue.
The PVV and Forum/JA21 MEPs voted against the resolution. They claim that their aim was not to avoid criticism of China
The PVV and Forum/JA21 MEPs voted against that text. They claim that their aim was not to avoid criticism of China: ‘We voted against it because we do not support multilateral EU trade agreements. This is separate from the human rights situation,’ a JA21 spokesperson says. According to Marcel de Graaff, the same applies to the PVV: ‘The PVV wants the Netherlands to be able to negotiate its own trade agreement with China and then it is up to the Netherlands whether or not to have an opinion on the human rights situation in that country.’
MEP Anja Hazekamp (Party for the Animals, part of the far left GUE/NGL group) sometimes opts for a diverging vote as well. She abstained on the amendment to the investment agreement, but supported the resolution on Hong Kong as a whole (including the paragraph on the investment agreement). Three years ago, she abstained when a resolution concerning Hong Kong was proposed.
Her spokesperson says that Hazekamp, based on ‘current knowledge’ of the deteriorating situation in Hong Kong, could also have voted in favour of the resolution in 2017. She could not support the specific amendment to the investment agreement because of her ‘fundamental rejection of the investment treaty’, but she did want to address China ‘on the ongoing serious human rights violations’.
How did members of the EU-China Friendship Group vote? The overall result is inconclusive.
Former British MEP Nirj Deva founded the group in 2006 and was its president until the 2019 European Parliament elections. When the Parliament voted on ‘the state of EU-China relations’ on 12 September 2018, there was a striking discrepancy between Deva’s voting behaviour and that of his fellow party members. Deva was the only one of his then 75-member group (the ECR), and thus of his own Conservative Party, to vote against it. The 92-paragraph resolution included critical remarks about Tibet, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
The president of the EU-China Friendship Group, Deva’s successor Jan Zahradil, also demonstrates erratic voting behaviour when it concerns China
However, Deva did vote in favour of a resolution that came to a vote a year later, on ‘the increasingly repressive regime that many religious and ethnic minorities, in particular Uyghurs and Kazakhs, Tibetans and Christians’ face in China.
The president of the EU-China Friendship Group, Deva’s successor Jan Zahradil, also demonstrates erratic voting behaviour when it concerns China. He voted for the resolution on Hong Kong in 2017 but abstained in 2018 (‘State of EU-China Relations’) and 2020 (on Uyghur forced labour). Notably, Zahradil voted ‘abstention’ on the Uyghur resolution, while his three fellow Czechian party members voted in favour.
As mentioned before, it is unclear which MEPs are (or have been) members of the friendship group, but in an article for the Czechian think tank Sinopsis, researcher Jichang Lulu attempted to find out. Some MEPs that Jichang identified as members demonstrated remarkable voting behaviour. This does not immediately prove Jichang’s suspicions, but it does raise questions.
Take Hungarian social democrat István Ujhelyi, also a founder of a tourism-cultural European-Chinese network organisation and chairman of the board of the Confucius Institute in Szeged. He did not initially respond to a request for comment. However, after this article was published in Dutch, Ujhelyi confirmed to Follow the Money that he had been a member of the Friendship Group since his re-election in 2019. ‘If my memory serves me right, we had only two meetings before the pandemic hit.’
There were also (alleged) members of the friendship group who consistently supported human rights resolutions
According to the minutes, Ujhelyi did not vote when the resolution on Uyghur forced labour passed on 17 December 2020. He was indeed present: in fact, Ujhelyi cast a vote on the resolutions on the agenda before and after this China resolution. The same thing happened on 12 September 2018, when a vote was held on EU-China relations: Ujhelyi was present, voted on the previous item on the agenda, but subsequently sat on the sidelines when the subject of China came up. Similarly, on Wednesday, 13 December 2017, Ujhelyi briefly stopped voting while Hong Kong was being debated.
Ujhelyi believes that some resolutions contain an ‘unnecessary distorted and lecturing tone of voice’ and that they ‘serve neither the European economic nor diplomatic interests’. He stresses the importance of cooperation and mutual understanding. ‘As a former responsible member of the Hungarian government, I do not wish to assist in the unnecessary political games by voting in favour, against, or abstain. It is true, the easiest way is to not vote.’ The Hungarian thinks that the ‘attacks’ on the EU-China Friendship Group are ‘solely politically motivated’.
There were also (alleged) members of the friendship group who consistently supported human rights resolutions, proving that some ‘friends’ were definitely not afraid of criticising China.
For example, Yana Toom (from Estonia, of the liberal Renew group) stated on 11 December 2019 that the Chinese Communist Party had paid her travel expenses and accommodation for a symposium on Chinese cooperation with Central and Eastern European countries the previous month. However, that was not a guarantee for a pro-Chinese stance. Over the following year and a half, Toom voted for the broad new Hong Kong resolution, the critical Uyghur resolution, and also voted in favour in January 2021 when the Parliament again voted on a critical stance on Hong Kong.
Therefore, being ‘friends’ with China does not automatically mean taking an uncritical stance. But even if it did, its influence on voting was limited. Researcher Jichang tells FTM: ‘The friendship group didn’t wield any significant influence as a “voting bloc”. Its weight is negligible within the full parliament.’ In his research, Jichang further concluded that claims that the group has 46 or 48 members are most likely exaggerated. ‘I’m not aware of any evidence the group ever had more than a dozen active members,’ Jichang said. When you consider the bigger picture, their numbers are marginal: the European Parliament has well over 700 members.
"If the friendship group’s aim was to increase the number of China-friendly MEPs, that mission could be considered a failure"
Besides, even if friendship group members had pro-Chinese views, it is an open question whether they got them as a result of their membership. ‘Correlation doesn’’t imply causality. Their positions on China often predated any known association with the group,’ Jichang said.
The friendship group has not been able to prevent China from being increasingly criticised by the European Parliament in recent years, much to the frustration of the Chinese EU embassy in Brussels. If the friendship group’s aim was to increase the number of China-friendly MEPs, that mission could be considered a failure.
‘European Parliament resolutions on China’s human rights violations have multiplied in recent years, and their language has become progressively stronger,’ Claudio Francavilla, a lobbyist in Brussels for Human Rights Watch, told Follow the Money. Moreover, texts criticising China can count on very comfortable majorities. The six recent China resolutions that were voted by roll call all had the support of at least eight out of ten members.
On 22 March, China made itself even less popular with the European Parliament. That day, Beijing reacted almost immediately to European sanctions against four Chinese who, according to the EU, are responsible for human rights violations because of ‘the large-scale arbitrary detentions of, in particular, Uyghurs in Xinjiang’. In response, China decided to bar five MEPs from entering China, Hong Kong, and Macau because they were, allegedly, ‘deliberately spreading lies and disinformation’ about the country. China also blacklisted the entire Human Rights Subcommittee.
The result: combative language from Parliament President David Sassoli. ‘The European Parliament will not be intimidated.’ German Manfred Weber, leader of the largest group (the European People’s Party), also spoke out: ‘Attacking freely elected Members of Parliament shows us the contempt Beijing has for democracy.’. Additionally, the members of the second-largest political group, the Socialists and Democrats, immediately announced that, as far as they were concerned, China must first lift the sanctions against the MEPs before they would be willing to continue discussions on a new investment agreement between the EU and China.
It will, however. take some time before a vote on this investment agreement is at hand. Although an agreement in principle was announced just before the new year, the European Commission’s lawyers are still reviewing the text. The agreement will only be valid if the member states and the European Parliament subsequently endorse it.
In last January’s resolution on Hong Kong, the European Parliament already announced that it ‘will take the human rights situation in China, including in Hong Kong, into account when asked to endorse the investment agreement or future trade deals with the People’s Republic of China.’
But adopting a non-binding resolution on human rights is no guarantee that it will be upheld when push comes to shove. Economic interests also come into play when voting on trade agreements. A resolution is, in fact, a political declaration that is ‘free of charge’, but the decision to not ratify a trade agreement can have a negative economic impact.
Human Rights Watch-lobbyist Francavilla wijst op het vrijhandelsakkoord dat de EU onlangs met Vietnam sloot. Het Europees Parlement vroeg in november 2018 in een resolutie de vrijlating van een aantal Vietnamese activisten, onder wie journalist Pham Chi Dung.
But in February 2020, when Parliament had the opportunity to exert real pressure, it agreed to the free trade agreement without demanding their release. A year later, the Parliament yet again demanded their release – again in a non-binding resolution.
It will be a while before the EU-China investment agreement comes to a vote in Strasbourg. Only then will we see what the European Parliament’s verbal commitments are worth – and whether they have learnt from their experience with Vietnam. Pham Chi Dung is still in prison.
MEP Jan Zahradil did not respond to requests for comment.