Speech by the Rt. Hon Chris Patten
European Commissioner for External Relations
to the European Parliament; Strasbourg, Nov. 16, 2004
Mr President, Honourable Members,
As you know, given the way in which the CFSP operates this is not an issue on which the Commission takes a lead. Nevertheless we have an obvious interest in the overall development of our relations with China and the arms embargo debate naturally plays out in that context.
The embargo was imposed by the European Council in 1989 following the events in Tiananmen Square. This year China has intensified its campaign to have it lifted. That campaign continues in the run up to the EU-China summit next month. The Chinese authorities consider the embargo to be evidence of discrimination against them, arguing that it is 'obsolete'. They claim that it severely hinders the further development of bilateral relations.
While we have acknowledged that positive change has occurred and that the political situation in China has moved on since Tiananmen, China's observance of some basic human rights, notably in the area of political and civil rights, continues to fall well short of international norms.
Without making any direct link, we have therefore consistently told China at the highest level that lifting of the embargo would be greatly assisted if they could take concrete steps in the field of human rights; steps that could convince European public opinion of the appropriateness of such action.
I know that a number of Member States are favourably disposed towards lifting the embargo, and have gone public with that position. Others believe that it is premature, citing concerns about human rights. Human rights were an issue that figured prominently in the resolution against lifting passed by this house last year.
Those Member States arguing for lifting use the rationale that the controls introduced in the 1998 EU Code of Conduct on arms sales make it no longer necessary. I acknowledge this argument is not without substance.
I am of course very keen to move forward with our important strategic partnership with China, which is rapidly emerging as a global player across the board, and is now, among other things our second largest trading partner. This is one of our top foreign policy goals in the years to come.
That said, given the underlying logic of the embargo and the significant political and symbolic values involved for both sides, it is understandable that some Member States argue that lifting the ban should take place against a background of positive and tangible steps by China to improve the human rights situation.
I would also like to say a few words on the European Parliament's report on the operation of the EU's Code of Conduct on arms exports. The strength of the Code of Conduct is closely related to the China embargo debate as it will guide Member States export practice should lifting take place. Responsibility for the arms trade currently rests with Member States but the Commission is fully associated with its consideration under CFSP.
Rapporteur Raul Romeva Rueda, should be commended for putting together a substantial document which merits detailed attention. It challenges Member States to attain higher, more stringent, standards on the control of arms exports. Among other things it asks for more transparency, not something normally immediately associated with the trade in arms. It also seeks further controls and limitations on such trade; inherently difficult areas for those Member States with significant arms industries.
Whilst the report focuses primarily on improvement in European practice, its scope is global. Recognising the EU's potential to promote best practice around the world, it advocates inter alia an International Arms Trade Treaty.
We should not forget the sobering fact that around half a million people die each year as a result of violence linked to small arms and light weapons. As you are well aware the Commission is regularly involved, with other international organisations and NGO's, in dealing with the consequences of inappropriate or illegal arms sales. We are also implementing some specific projects to reduce destabilising accumulations of weapons around the world. A pilot project initiated by the European Parliament is underway in order to see what else can be done.
Certainly, more does need to be done. I particularly support the logic of an international agreement to strengthen the control of conventional arms sales. That is why the Commission has, as part of wider EU efforts, strongly supported the adoption of an international Code of Conduct on arms exports based on the EU's initiative.
Member States are currently considering how to improve the Code of Conduct and we are encouraging these efforts to strengthen EU controls on conventional arms sales. The success of this endeavour will be a factor in the ongoing China arms embargo debate.