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They Will Call Us Hypocrites

Opinion

March 17, 2005

By Erika Mann

Those European governments that are apparently bent on lifting the European Union's arms embargo against China would be well-advised to take notice of the gathering tide of opposition among legislators on both sides of the Atlantic. In Europe there is precious little popular support for this move, which would flout all the values the EU stands for while also striking a blow against those working for more democratic change in China.

In the last three years, the European Parliament has made its concerns about China abundantly clear. Just last November it argued for sticking to the embargo until Beijing has taken concrete steps toward improving the human-rights situation. Specifically, the parliament called for China to ratify the 1966 U.N. Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

So why are so many European governments committed to lifting the embargo? The rationale behind this idea seems to be a half-baked mix of pragmatism and realpolitik that should have never been served up as a "responsible" policy.

The pragmatists say that China is rebuilding its military and that it makes no sense for European firms to be cut off from winning lucrative weapons deals. Besides, they argue, China has joined the WTO and it should now be rewarded for its gradual progress toward becoming a "normal" member of the international community.

Leading advocates of ending the embargo also seek to reassure the public that such a move would not mean a sudden flood of European weaponry to Beijing. They claim that the new code of conduct will be sufficiently restrictive to prevent transfers of sensitive military goods and technologies. The "pragmatists" also quite deviously argue that lifting the embargo could not possibly encourage an attack on Taiwan since China supposedly already has all the capabilities it needs to do so.

Moreover, it is said that arms exports from countries like Germany will continue to be restricted by tight national legislation. The message is: "Nothing very serious will change, but lifting the embargo will be symbolically important."

But symbolism is the very reason why, in my view and that of many of my colleagues, we must maintain the embargo. That's also what I, together with three other German MEPs, recently said in an open letter to Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. The citizens of the EU, despite coming from 25 in many ways diverse nations, share one set of rather fervent values: democracy, the rule of law, civil rights and peaceful relationships between nations.

These principles have been the foundation upon which the union has grown and prospered. The eight countries of Central and Eastern Europe who joined the EU last year sought membership almost immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Sure, they wanted to share in the economic opportunities that would be available. But as important was the possibility of placing themselves within a unique political framework dedicated to preserving and enhancing those democratic and human values that had been denied to them for so long.

Greece back in 1981 and then Spain and Portugal in 1987 were among the first to demonstrate the union's enormous power of attraction to countries that had emerged from the darkness of dictatorships and wished to build a civil society as a bulwark against the return of those dark days.

The same democratic magnetism is now working in the Ukraine and Georgia and it is very likely that someday they too will fulfill their destiny within the union. And Turkey is given real hope that if it accepts our human-rights standards, it could join the EU as well.

The union's values of democracy, the rule of law, human rights and peace are the components of its "soft" power in the world. Europe is not driven by any ambition to control other countries. But neither should it shirk its responsibilities to help others become politically and economically stable societies. Robert Cooper argues in his book "The Breaking Of Nations" that "foreign policy is not only about interests . . . it is also about the kind of world you want to live in and the kind of country you want to be."

It's not good enough to talk the talk. We have to walk the walk as well. If the EU wants to avoid charges of hypocrisy, it must refuse to support regimes that are in open conflict with its core values. If we abandon the arms embargo, I am afraid that we will be rightly called hypocrites.

Equally meretricious would be any realpolitik justification for lifting the embargo. The notion in some European capitals is that the world is supposedly destined to be divided in three "poles" of power: the United States, Europe and Asia. By lifting the embargo, it is argued that Europe would be strengthening its relations with Asia and making a necessary alteration in the balance of power. According to this view, Europe will have more influence if it puts some distance between itself and Washington. And since the U.S. is opposed to lifting the embargo, it is therefore wise diplomacy, or so the argument goes, to oppose American wishes.

For the realpolitik school of thought, this is what is really meant by the "comprehensive strategic partnership" that the leaders at last December's EU-China summit set as the goal for their relationship.

I doubt if our citizens will understand this and I am certain that they do not wish to see Europe's relationship with the U.S. suffer in order to make a "symbolic" gesture to China.

A month ago President Bush came to Brussels and reached out to Europe. Since then, he has made important steps toward the European position on Iran and Europe has wisely responded. The U.S. is now visibly working for a peace settlement between the Palestinians and Israelis, a renewed commitment to diplomacy in the region that we have long called for.

Let the EU continue to do what it does so well: proclaim its values and act on them. That is a much sounder basis for encouraging a process of political transformation in China that could eventually be rewarded with the sale of arms. To hand over the prize now would be a disreputable act that we would live to regret.

Ms. Mann, a member of the European Parliament, belongs to German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's Social Democratic party.