Vincent Metten is EU Policy Director at the International Campaign for Tibet.
On September 11, 2013 President Dalia Grybauskaite welcomed the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet, to Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius. In a moving video, President Grybauskaite told the Dalai Lama she was ‘honored’ to receive him. The Lithuanian leader’s actions were all the more significant as they followed a deep freeze in China’s relations with the UK after UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s meeting with the Dalai Lama in London last year. The meeting was also an important signal as Lithuania currently holds the six-monthly rotating Presidency of the European Council.
Two years ago, President Grybauskaite’s Estonian counterpart, President Toomas Ilves, also met with the Dalai Lama. Many other leaders in the world have met the Dalai Lama in recent years such as US Presidents Bush and Obama, German Chancellor Merkel, the President of the European Commission Barroso, UK Prime Minister David Cameron, Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofsadt, the late Czech President Vaclav Havel, and others. But it is only the second time that the exiled Tibetan religious leader has met the head of the country holding the EU Presidency.
In 2008, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who at that time was also heading the EU Presidency, met the Dalai Lama in Gdansk, Poland. It was an encounter with particular political resonance, as it occurred on the margins of the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Peace Nobel Prize awarded to Lech Walesa, leader of the Solidarity movement, which played a crucial role in the fight against Communist rule. The Chinese authorities’ reaction was to cancel the EU-China Summit (as well as a Business summit) planned on December 1, 2008 in Lyon.
How will Beijing react this time? Will China once again decide to cancel the next EU-China Summit scheduled for the end of the year in China? Or will China decide to impose political, diplomatic and commercial retaliation measures « only » towards Lithuania, choosing to ignore its status as current head of the EU?
Over the past few years, Beijing has adopted a more aggressive diplomatic position, stepping up its pressure on EU Member states to block meetings between heads of government, ministers and members of Parliament with the Dalai Lama. No opportunity for leverage is too small, or too high-profile. Unfortunately, some European leaders have succumbed to the pressure. This undermines European values of dialogue and conciliation, and ultimately weakens EU leverage rather than contributing to the development of strong EU-‐China relations that encourage China to become a better global citizen.
Under Lithuania’s Presidency, it would be appropriate for the EU to issue a statement of solidarity in common response to the bullying of the Beijing leadership of European leaders like President Grybauskaite who show the moral integrity and courage in meeting with the Dalai Lama.
ICT submitted key recommendations to the EU during the Lithuanian Presidency, including the need to ensure the alignment of national positions, stating in an EU common position that it is the right of all EU Member States leaders to welcome and meet with the Dalai Lama and legitimate representatives of the Tibetan movement in whatever manner they deem appropriate and without interference or threats from the Chinese government.
Such a common position would demonstrate the solidarity that binds the 28 Member States on this issue and it would also provide a sort of political umbrella to protect individual Member States from Chinese pressure. It will also send a message that it is not up to the Beijing leadership to dictate a political agenda to democratic European countries.
At the same time, the EU also needs to define a more robust stand in promoting the resumption of the Sino-Tibetan dialogue and reinforcing international cooperation on Tibet with like-minded countries, in particular by using the upcoming Universal Periodic Review on China, in October this year at the UN Human Rights Council, to press the Chinese Government on the situation in Tibet.
The people of the Baltic States, once under Soviet rule, know what it is to face political persecution under an occupying power. In Lithuania self-immolations were also carried out as political protests against Communist rule. In Tibet, more than 120 Tibetans have self-immolated since 2009, asking for more freedoms, the respect of their identity and culture and the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet. The Chinese government has responded to the self-‐immolations and unrest in Tibet by intensifying the military buildup and strengthening the very policies and approaches that are the root cause of the acts. The Chinese Communist Party’s erosion of authority and criminalization of self-‐immolation also leads to retributive actions against families, relatives, or monasteries associated with those who have self-‐immolated, which creates a vicious spiral in which more people are prepared to self-‐immolate because of the oppressive conditions.
The need for the Dalai Lama’s involvement in Tibet’s future has never been more urgent. It would be an appropriate moment, under a Lithuanian Presidency, for the EU to facilitate genuine engagement between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese leadership on Tibet’s future. Like the Dalai Lama, the EU is a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. This gives the EU even greater authority in its reconciliation and peace-building work and now is the time for this to be applied to the crisis in Tibet.