EU ratchets up pressure on China with call to cooperate with inquiry

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen dismissed worries that any investigation would weaken ties with China. Photo: dpa. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

BRUSSELS, May 2, 2020, SCMP. The European Union has urged China to cooperate with an investigation into the origin of the coronavirus, increasing diplomatic pressure on Beijing for greater transparency. The call from European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen came a day after her foreign policy aide Josep Borrell confirmed that China attempted to put pressure on the EU ahead of a report detailing the Chinese government’s disinformation campaigns, South China Morning Post reported.

Earlier this week, the Swedish government said it planned to ask the EU to launch an investigation into the origin of the new coronavirus, and into the World Health Organisation’s handling of the pandemic. The deadly virus so far has infected more than 1.3 million people in Europe – over a third of cases worldwide.

Beijing has been sidestepping calls for international inquiries into the virus, calling for “depoliticisation” – for politics to be taken out – of what it insists is a scientific matter. This unwillingness to commit to a joint investigation has resulted in more countries making the demand on China.

Asked if China should cooperate with the European Commission to find out how Covid-19 emerged, von der Leyen said on CNBC on Friday, “Yes, I think this is – for all of us – important. I mean for the whole world it is important”.

“You never know when the next virus is starting, so we all want for the next time [that] we have learned our lesson and we’ve established a system of early warning that really functions, and the whole world has to contribute to that,” she said.

Von der Leyen dismissed worries that an inquiry would weaken relations with China, saying: “No, I don’t think so, because it’s all in our own interest. I mean, this pandemic has caused so much damage, so it’s in our own interest, of every country, that we are better prepared the next time.

“We do not know when such a crisis occurs again, but we should be better prepared now.”

Von der Leyen spoke with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on Wednesday, saying the EU would enhance cooperation with China to beat the virus and gradually resume growth, according to state-owned Xinhua News Agency.

Li said China would work with the EU in a spirit of partnership to improve exchanges and cooperation on tackling the disease, and highlighted that both China and Europe stood for multilateralism, Xinhua reported.

The United States has been calling for an investigation into the origin of the coronavirus. US President Donald Trump said he had seen evidence that the virus originated from a lab in Wuhan.

The US intelligence community said it was trying to determine if there was a link between a lab and the virus, but had determined that the virus was not man-made or genetically modified.

Other European leaders have also called for more transparency from China, including French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, though their exhortations fell short of von der Leyen’s stern message for China to cooperate.

Macron’s office has dismissed US claims that the virus could have come from a virology lab in Wuhan. Washington floated the possibility after a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman accused the US Army of creating the virus.

A European diplomatic source said that China’s propaganda efforts in Europe directly led to the EU’s toughening stance.

“If China had not tried to tell us it did better, or its authoritarian system worked better, Europe wouldn’t have needed to criticise China at this stage,” he said.

Chinese diplomats have launched fierce campaigns on social media that fight claims the country should bear responsibility for the pandemic.

Much of the effort is aimed at Europe, which saw the first major continental outbreak outside China.

While China sent millions of masks to countries across Europe, the EU was concerned about its own loss of credibility over its slower – and quieter – effort to help member states such as Italy, which was overwhelmed early in the pandemic.

Some diplomats, such as the Chinese ambassador to France, went further by venturing into debates about political systems between China and Europe, consolidating the EU’s fear of an inevitable battle with what it started last year calling a systemic rival, the source said.

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