From Senior Eurocrat to Pro-China Lobbyist: Beijing’s Influence in Brussels in Spotlight

Written by | Tuesday, December 29th, 2020

Many so-called friendship groups in the European Parliament seek to promote cultural and economic ties between the EU and countries ranging from China to the United Arab Emirates to Taiwan. But it is the EU-China Friendship Group that has shown greater potential — and ambition — than others of its kind. One of the issues in the spotlight here is that its leader, a high-profile Czech conservative named Jan Zahradil, was vice-chair of the Parliament’s powerful International Trade Committee. As such, he was able to weigh in on EU trade decisions and could obtain access to sensitive negotiating documents from the European Commission.
Zahradil raised eyebrows when he, just over a year ago, urged newly elected peers to help him rid the EU of “acrimonious competition” with China, promising to use his “stronger political profile” to bolster EU-China ties, especially in the areas of “trade and environmental policy” — the latter a highly contentious area at the outset of trade talks. The group’s secretary-general was Gai Lin, a Chinese national who had helped to organize more than a dozen trips to China for EU lawmakers over the past decade and a half, and was plugged into Beijing’s extensive network of soft-power institutions. Hence it is hardly surprising that Zahradil’s group has come under fierce scrutiny over concerns that it is too close to Beijing, and could be giving China an edge in ongoing trade talks with Brussels.
But Zahradil steadfastly refuses claims that his prominent political standing had granted him privileged access to information on the EU’s China policies: “I do not have access to any classified or confidential information on the issue, apart [from] open sources or publicly accessible European Parliament materials.” But as the EU reviews its relationship with China in the midst of a contentious trade negotiation and suspected human rights violations, Beijing’s influence inside the European Parliament has set off alarm bells. “I quickly realized this group was not something we wanted to be associated with,” said a parliament official who attended one of the group’s events who, however, asked not to be named out of concern they could suffer political retaliation
Other lawmakers say the group fits in with growing efforts by Beijing to strengthen its influence in Brussels — efforts that ranged from financing think tanks to suspected espionage targeting EU institutions. Last September, Belgian security services launched an investigation into a former UK diplomat and ex-European Commission official, and earlier this year, German prosecutors opened an investigation into Gerhard Sabathil, a former EU official – in both cases on suspicion they were passing sensitive information to China in exchange for remuneration. Although the later probe has now been dropped, the collapse of the nearly year-long investigation against Sabathil underscores the difficulties Western authorities face in distinguishing legitimate business and academic dealings from espionage, as governments from Brussels to Washington have grown increasingly wary of Beijing’s heightened global ambitions and influence.
This case also highlights the problem of “revolving door” or a movement of personnel between roles as legislators and regulators, on one hand, and members of the industries affected by the legislation and regulation, on the other. The EU’s diplomatic service – the EEAS – recently faced public scrutiny over its approval for Sabathil, a former EU Ambassador to South Korea, who had left the EEAS in 2017, only to immediately become a director of a Berlin-based lobby firm EUTOP. The firm is a major lobby intermediary in EU affairs, with a questionable reputation, especially since it reportedly represents the German subsidiary of Huawei and also when it comes to hiding its work and using former politicians and officials to benefit its clients. Many have thus questioned how Sabathil could have reconciled and justified – at the very least morally – both having until recently represented the EU as its very senior diplomat and official while subsequently working for Huawei, a company with deep ties to China’s power structure.
But whatever one makes of the morality of Sabathil’s private and business dealings in and around China, they don’t appear to have been illegal. The main motivation for his engagement in China may be the most obvious – to make money. Now that the investigation is over, Sabathil says his next battle is beginning — a lawsuit against the German government for damages. Despite his effective exoneration, his professional life is a shambles and his prospects of working again are slim.

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