Just over a year ago, a prominent European lawmaker urged newly elected peers to help him rid the bloc of “acrimonious competition” with China.
On the face of it, the invitation to an EU-China Friendship Group event was business-as-usual in the European Parliament. Many so-called friendship groups seek to promote cultural and economic ties between the EU and countries ranging from the United Arab Emirates to Taiwan.
“Champagne and canapés will be served,” read the lawmaker’s invitation.
But the China group showed greater potential — and ambition — than others of its kind.
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.
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.
In his invitation, Zahradil hinted at the advantage conferred by his position to prospective members. He promised 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.
A year on, 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. A senior MEP who leads the Parliament’s official delegation for outreach with China, as well as other parliamentary figures and think tanks close to the U.S. foreign policy establishment, say that the group is part of a constellation of organizations, loosely or explicitly tied to China, that seek to advance Beijing’s agenda abroad.
They point out that the group has ramped up its activities at a time when Beijing has grown more assertive on foreign policy, with the EU accusing China of spreading misinformation.
Zahradil rejected claims that his position had granted him privileged access to information on the EU’s China policies. “I do not specifically cover China files,” he told POLITICO in an emailed response to questions. “I do not have access to any classified or confidential informations 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.
“We all understand that there are people outside who want to subvert our democratic system and processes,” said Raphaël Glucksmann, a French social democrat lawmaker who chairs a new Special Committee on Foreign Interference in all Democratic Processes in the EU. “It’s about threats that are inside the institutions and inside Parliament.”
Parliament officials who asked not to be named out of concern they could suffer political retaliation said the friendship group threatened EU interests because its positions reflected Beijing’s agenda, and because of its leader’s position on the trade committee.
“I quickly realized this group was not something we wanted to be associated with,” said one official who attended the event in October 2019.
Others said the group fits in with growing efforts by Beijing to strengthen its influence in Brussels — efforts that have run the gamut from financing think tanks to suspected espionage targeting EU institutions.