EU leaders face tough time getting tough on China

After virtual summit, von der Leyen calls out Beijing on cyberattacks and demands progress on trade disputes.

EU leaders face tough time getting tough on China

EU leaders wanted to get tougher on China. Instead, they had a tough time just remaining consistent in their own remarks.

During a videoconference “summit” with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang on Monday, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Council President Charles Michel staked out a slightly harder line with Beijing, particularly on trade disagreements, on cyberattacks and on China’s heavy-handed treatment of Hong Kong.

But the Europeans got no guarantees, neither written nor spoken, from the Chinese. And there was not even a joint news conference that might have obligated Xi and Li to confirm the topics that were addressed, and acknowledge the EU’s positions.

Meanwhile, the EU’s uneven approach toward the world’s dominant rising power — a reflection of disagreements among the bloc’s national capitals — seemed as uneven as ever, with von der Leyen and the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, giving different views on how they view China.

“Systemic rival,” von der Leyen said, referring to a 2019 EU strategic document on China. “That means there are two very different systems, very different views on values … and in this category, of course, goes the topic of cybersecurity. We know that we have seen attacks … cyberattacks in the past, as I said, on computing systems, on hospitals. And we know the origin of the cyberattacks, the same goes for disinformation.”

The EU and China have made a custom of holding annual meetings, but this year’s event was forced online by the coronavirus pandemic.

“We pointed out clearly that this cannot be tolerated,” von der Leyen said of the cyberattacks, adding, “On our side, we put against them the facts and the figures that are necessary to know.”

Borrell, speaking in an interview on Monday with the German Marshall Fund of the United States, took a somewhat less confrontational tone. “We don’t want to engage in a kind of systematic rivalry with China,” he said. “But on the other hand, we are not naïve. I said at the beginning of my mandate that we Europeans have been a little bit naïve with respect to China and on that, I agree with President Trump who said the same thing.”

The EU and China have made a custom of holding annual meetings, but this year’s event was forced online by the coronavirus pandemic. Germany is still hoping to hold a high-profile event later this year to be attended by top Chinese officials and all 27 EU heads of state and government.

The online summit also posed some logistical challenges for the EU side. During opening remarks, a screen mounted high on a wall left Michel awkwardly looking up from a desk where he was seated, as if his counterparts were standing on a hill above him.

For the EU, it was von der Leyen who delivered the firmest positions on Monday, particularly on trade, where the EU wields full authority on behalf of all of its member countries. She insisted that Monday’s summit was useful but more work remained to be done.

“We must make progress,” she said. “For this, the summit was only a starting point. Progress implies cooperation on both sides, implies reciprocity and implies trust.”

Von der Leyen demanded that Beijing step up efforts to negotiate various trade disputes, including an investment agreement, which she insisted should be concluded by the end of this year.

“We have not made the progress we aimed for in last year’s summit statement in addressing market access barriers,” she said. “We need to follow up on these commitments urgently.”

She added, “In order to conclude the investment agreement, we would need in particular substantial commitments from China on the behavior of state-owned enterprises, transparency in subsidies, and transparency on the topic of forced technology transfers. And we have raised these issues at the same time with Premier Li and President Xi, that we expect that China will show the necessary level of ambition to conclude these negotiations by the end of this year.”

Von der Leyen said she and Michel had forcefully conveyed the EU’s position on human rights and its alarm over China’s threat to impose a national security law on Hong Kong. “For the European Union, human rights and fundamental freedoms are non-negotiable,” she said. “We always raise our concerns, so was it today too.”

“We were very clear in our conversations that Beijing’s imposition of a national security law on Hong Kong does not conform with the Hong Kong basic law, nor with China’s international commitments,” von der Leyen said in reply to a question. “This was very clear. The national security law risks seriously undermining the one country, two systems principle and Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy we wish to see stay in place.”

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen | Pool photo by Yves Herman/AFP via Getty Images

But she and Michel stopped short of mentioning any potential action the EU might take, and indeed there is little agreement on the prospect of imposing sanctions or taking other punitive measures that might deter Beijing.

Instead, the Council and Commission issued a joint declaration laying out in writing their goals and priorities, but it seemed intended more to bridge any differences between the two EU institutions rather than reconcile disagreements with the Chinese who, in any event, did not sign it.

If such a soft approach risked perpetuating the “naïve” posture Borrell warned about, von der Leyen did not let on.

Instead, the Commission president said she was hoping for the best from Beijing. “We count on the Chinese leadership to match our level of ambition,” she said.

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Trump extends foreign worker restrictions through end of year

The White House announced it is extending an executive order halting new green cards and certain temporary work visas.

Trump extends foreign worker restrictions through end of year

U.S. President Donald Trump will sign an executive order extending a freeze on green cards and barring most categories of foreign workers through the end of the year, the White House announced Monday.

The order extends restrictions originally enacted in April due to the coronavirus pandemic, which blocked most people from receiving a permanent residency visa, or green card. The new order also temporarily freezes H1-B visas for highly-skilled workers, a program popular with the U.S. tech industry, and other temporary work visas. It exempts farm workers and live-in childcare providers called au pairs.

The Trump administration is arguing the immigration restrictions are necessary to protect American jobs during a period of historic unemployment, the result of the country’s lockdown this spring to prevent the spread of Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

The president “put in place a 60-day pause on incoming green cards coming into the country who can take any job they like once they’re here, and that is being extended to the end of the year,” a senior administration official said on a telephone briefing with reporters to preview the executive order. “The president is expanding that measure in light of the, frankly, the expanding unemployment and the number of Americans who are out of work.”

The senior administration official said the president’s actions would free up 525,000 jobs over the remainder of the year. That’s “quite a significant number,” the official said, noting that Trump “is focused on getting Americans back to work as quickly as possible after we’ve suffered this hit to our economy.”

The executive order applies to H1-B visas, which allow U.S. employers to temporarily hire non-immigrant workers in specialty occupations; H4 visas for spouses of H1-B workers; L visas for temporary workers and most J and H2-B visas. J visas are for work-and-study-based exchange visitor programs and their spouses and dependents — au pairs are exempt, but professors and scholars are not — and H2-B visas for temporary non-agricultural workers.

“When people come in with a green card, they have open-market work opportunities,” the senior administration official said, explaining the difference between the first and second orders. “They can go to any job anywhere, whereas, say, H2-Bs and Js and H-1Bs, these are market-restricted. They have particular types of jobs they can work in.”

Trump also “dramatically” narrowed the types of medical workers who can enter the U.S. to only those working on Covid-19 care or research, the official said.

With the original order set to expire Monday, Trump signaled in a weekend Fox News interview that the new executive order was coming soon. The extension highlights the president’s focus on the economy and immigration ahead of his reelection.

Trump, who has been given low marks for his early response to the coronavirus pandemic, out-polls presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden on the issue of the economy and hoped to ride a wave of economic prosperity into a second term before the health crisis upended everything.

The Trump administration quietly continued to allow foreign workers to enter the country after the coronavirus outbreak initially hit, even easing requirements for immigrants to get certain jobs. But the president abruptly tweeted in April that he would stop all immigration into the U.S. as the unemployment rate soared. The following day, he scaled back that plan.

Four Republican senators — Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Ted Cruz of Texas, Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Josh Hawley of Missouri — had asked the president to pause guest worker visas between 60 days and a year, “or until unemployment has returned to normal levels.” And six House Republicans, including Freedom Caucus Chairman Andy Biggs of Arizona, followed suit with their own letter.

Business interests, however, lobbied hard against the restrictions, arguing they will cause more, not less, economic pain across the country.

Anita Kumar contributed to this report.

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