China has been in the spotlight of international affairs for many years. The economic and political relations to the emerging super-power have been put centre-stage by former US President Trump who reacted to China’s growing influence with import tariffs, bans and a martial rhetoric. But while his successor President Biden seeks a different language, the deep tensions between the United States and China still persist. At the same time, the EU has forged the concept known as ‘open strategic autonomy’ to foster the EU’s sovereignty and assertiveness in its trade between both rivals and partners.
But with respect to China, the EU’s path is everything but clear: The sudden finalisation of the EU-China investment agreement, followed by its placing in a deep freezer months after its finalisation following Chinese sanctions on parliamentarians, executives and NGOs in the EU, indicates that the EU is equally nervous about an emerging autocratic regime that has learned from the best when it comes to wielding military and economic power to ensure its influence in the world. In May 2021, euobserver reported about Belgian politicians raising concerns about the Chinese e-Commerce giant Alibaba opening its European hub in Liège, Belgium. And the G7 Carbis Bay Summit Communiqué only superficially hides that China is the new enemy no.1.
In this big power play over global influence and dominance of economies and values, one aspect is often being overlooked which has direct consequences for thousands of EU (and US) citizens every day. More quietly than in the big power play, China has already imposed its ‘wild west’ approach on our daily lives: more than 50 percent of the products listed as dangerous in 2020 in the EU’s safety notification system came from China, mostly toys, electrical appliances and clothing.
Interestingly, US consumer organisations report similar problems with unsafe products on the US market coming from China. Therefore, a joint EU-US approach on product safety towards China could be a “low-hanging fruit” in a renewed transatlantic agenda.
And this is not only a consumer problem: European manufacturers complain about unfair competition due to cheap and dangerous products. In 2019, Toy Industries Europe bought toys from four of the largest European marketplaces. All goods were directly shipped from China and 76 percent of 134 toys tested were found to be illegal (due to sharp edges or the risk of suffocation, chocking or strangulation, the risk of burns or high chemical contents).
Given the rise of e-commerce and global online shopping in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the European Commission and EU Member States must act now in order to actively tackle the problem of unsafe products pouring into the European Single Market from China specifically.
Product safety might seem like a negligible problem given the overarching challenges EU decision-makers, companies or human rights activists are facing every day. But the safety of products is a challenge that directly affects the health and safety of tens of thousands of people every day. In 2019 (well before COVID-19), the freight airport of Liège in Belgium counted roughly one million direct imports (most of them from China) – every day. And this is only one of the ten largest freight airports in the EU. Accordingly, the safety of products entering the EU Single Market from China should not only be left to legislators trying to reform the EU’s decades old product safety legislation. It should also find its place in the overarching China strategy of the EU’s external and trade policies. It should be a topic in political and diplomatic exchanges at all levels. And the European Commission and Member States should demand more effective action from Chinese authorities to tackle these problems.
This does not mean that tightening due diligence obligations for companies when it comes to human-rights violations would not be necessary. On the contrary, a strengthened human rights regime is clearly relevant for consumers as they are not able to detect whether the products they buy have been produced with forced labour or led to environmental pollution. Consumers want to buy goods that are safe to use and produced in a sustainable and ethical manner – for both aspects they have to trust the rules governing the import of products into the EU. It’s up to all policy-makers to finally address these issues more prominently in the EU’s external exchanges, together with our transatlantic partners. This is how diplomacy delivers to citizens.