The European Union failed to consult with member states before agreeing to demands from China’s foreign ministry to remove references to the spread of the coronavirus from an opinion piece the 27 governments jointly published in a news outlet owned by the Communist Party of China, according to correspondence seen by BuzzFeed News.
Diplomats from several European countries confirmed that their governments had not been consulted and some only found out about the changes to the article after it was published.
One of the diplomats said there had been no discussion about the piece in capitals, nor among diplomatic missions in Brussels. They noted the irony of the incident happening just a few days after World Press Freedom Day on Sunday.
Another diplomat described the decision to accept China’s request as “weak”, while a third said member states being kept in the dark was “really bad”. A senior diplomat from a major EU country told BuzzFeed News that several European governments were unhappy about how the issue had been dealt with. "The EU lost credibility in the eyes of China by accepting the demands," said the diplomat.
Publication of the article was coordinated by the European External Action Service (EEAS), the EU’s foreign security policy agency, in Beijing.
To mark the 45th anniversary of EU–China relations, the EU ambassador to China and the ambassadors to China of the 27 EU member states jointly published an op-ed on the China Daily website on May 6.
BuzzFeed News first reported on Wednesday that China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs had references to the coronavirus spreading from China to the rest of the world removed from the article and didn't grant permission to publish a Chinese version of the piece in the People’s Daily newspaper.
An EU spokesperson for foreign affairs and security policy later confirmed that the article had been changed following demands by the Chinese government.
"The EU Delegation to China was informed that the publication could only take place with the agreement of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” the spokesperson said.
“The EU Delegation decided nevertheless to proceed with the publication of the Op-Ed with considerable reluctance, as it considered it important to communicate very important messages on EU policy priorities, notably on climate change and sustainability, human rights, multilateralism and the global response to the coronavirus.”
At a press conference on Thursday, the EU declined to respond to a reporter's question about whether member states had been involved in the process of publication, saying it didn't comment on internal procedures.
But correspondence from the EEAS in Beijing, seen by BuzzFeed News, shows the 27 European governments were not consulted on agreeing to the censorship. "We regret that pressure of time prevented advance consultation with MS [member states] on this occasion," the agency wrote.
The agency explained in the email that the change to the article happened after the newspaper refused to consider publication without approval from the foreign ministry, referred to as “MFA”.
"After extensive negotiations the MFA made it clear that they would not agree to the publication of the op-ed if the change was not made. The EU Delegation finally conceded to the amendment with considerable reluctance" and "on the understanding that the op-ed would appear in the Chinese language People's Daily — on 6 May".
The EEAS added that it would make its disappointment known to China's foreign ministry over the Chinese language version of the article not appearing.
China’s government has not yet provided an explanation as to why the Chinese version of the altered piece wasn’t published.
Several EU embassies in China, including Germany’s and the Netherlands, published the full piece, including the reference to the “the outbreak of the coronavirus in China, and its subsequent spread to the rest of the world over the past three months”.
This is the second incident in the last year of the EEAS not being fully transparent with member states. BuzzFeed News reported last June that the bloc’s diplomatic mission in Moscow had been hacked, but the EEAS didn’t disclose the incident to EU governments, despite the belief that Russian entities were behind it.
The EEAS has in recent weeks come under scrutiny for its handling of relations with China. Earlier this week, the EU’s foreign policy arm responded to claims that it watered down a report about China’s global disinformation efforts and COVID-19 by lashing out at junior staff and blaming leaks. The EEAS denies that the report was softened following Chinese pressure.