The European Union has put the brakes on a French proposal to lift an arms embargo on China because of concerns about Beijing's record on human rights. But EU foreign ministers say they will take up the matter again at a European summit in March. An EU foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels also blocked a pay increase for members of the European Parliament, saying it was too generous.
France's push for the EU to lift its ban on arms sales to China came just as Chinese President Hu Jintao was beginning a state visit to Paris. France says the ban, which was imposed after China's communist rulers cracked down on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, is anachronistic. But French diplomats found no support for the move, as several of their European partners questioned the human rights situation in China.
EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten reflected the feeling among most EU members that the situation in China has changed but that the time is not yet ripe to lift the arms embargo.
"Are we satisfied with the human rights situation in China? The Chinese know that we're not," he said, "and we express in the human rights dialogue our concerns about a number of issues, including the incontinent use of the death penalty, including the fact that China has not yet ratified the international covenant on civil and political rights. We recognize progress, but there are still matters that concern us."
Ending the arms embargo would open the way for lucrative contracts from China's military, which has embarked on a massive modernization program.
The ministers also disagreed on whether to grant members of the European Parliament a pay raise in exchange for their reining in expenses. The current system, whose critics charge is an open invitation to fraud, allows euro-deputies to claim travel expenses without providing receipts. Members' salaries also vary according to their nationality, with Italians earning 15 thousand dollars a month, four times as much as their Spanish counterparts. The proposal would have standardized the salaries of all deputies at $11,300.
But Germany, France, Austria and Sweden vetoed the deal, saying it would look unseemly at a time of fiscal belt-tightening in several European countries.
Ireland, which holds the EU's rotating presidency, also began efforts to revive talks on a constitution for the bloc. The negotiations collapsed last December when Poland and Spain held out for disproportionate voting rights they secured three years ago, an arrangement that gives them nearly as much influence in EU councils as Germany, which has twice their population.
Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen says he received strong encouragement from his colleagues to "proceed with urgency", in his words, because the union will expand from 15 to 25 members in May. He says the stalemate over the constitution will not get easier to resolve in the future
"Europe has big challenges on its external agenda: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Middle East," he said. "And we can't continue to devote all of our energies into soul-searching on a new constitution."
Although Spain has signaled that it may be willing to compromise, incoming member Poland remains adamantly opposed to the constitutional draft that would reduce its voting power.