For much of the past decade, the world's largest trading bloc has gone out of its way to establish an economic partnership with Beijing that doesn't conflict too aggressively with Brussels' lofty values. The EU was criticized from both in and outside the bloc when it announced last December the conclusion in principle of negotiations with the Chinese government on its "Comprehensive Agreement on Investment" (CAI). According to EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the agreement, if ratified, "will provide unprecedented access to the Chinese market," while also committing "China to ambitious principles on sustainability, transparency and non-discrimination." Any agreement like this needs to be approved by the EU's 27 member states and ratified by the European parliament.
Precisely how bound China would be to any of the EU's redlines was an immediate cause for concern. "The deal makes statements about human rights and forced labor, but there is no way of forcing China to do anything," says Samira Rafaela, a member of the EU parliament who sits on the international trade committee.