BRUSSELS — The European Union on Thursday agreed to set up an energy "partnership" with China ensuring "open" access to each other's markets.
European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso said during a signing ceremony with China's premier-in-waiting Li Keqiang that "to be effective, this will also require guaranteeing 'a level playing field', including open and non-discriminatory access to our respective markets."
Energy ministers from the 27-state EU as well as China's highest energy officials attended the talks, but neither side held a news conference, despite harsh criticism from the Brussels press corps on World Press Freedom Day.
The EU has created an internal electricity market for more than 500 million people and 20 million companies. China was interested in opening up its own market, Barroso said as the two sides agreed to the exchange of expertise and technical support.
Barroso however reiterated that the EU wanted to see greater access to the Chinese market.
"Negotiating a bilateral investment agreement and ensuring access to procurement markets are important elements in our trade relations that will also enhance our cooperation in the energy markets in the long term," Barroso said. "I trust our Chinese partners and friends share this point."
During his three days in the European capital, Vice Premier Li signed a farm and an investment fund deal with Belgium while also attending the launch of a "sustainable urbanisation" scheme reflecting "the widening of the agenda" in EU-China relations, as one EU diplomat put it.
Agreed at a February EU-China summit, the hands-on scheme involving mayors, environmentalists and experts, aims to help the two sides build energy-efficient green cities as China addresses a historically unprecedented challenge of morphing from rural nation to land of mega-cities.
"Europe has an important place in the world. The harmonious development of the world needs a strong prosperous China," said Li, who is expected to replace Premier Wen Jiabao next year, said at the launch of the scheme.
"The China-EU partnership is one of the most important in the world," he added. "We're ready to contribute to solving the European debt problem. We're committed to working with the EU and promoting our ties to a higher level."
Belgian and EU leaders said they had brought up the issue of human rights during the talks but there was no explicit mention of the case of dissident Chen Guangcheng.
Meanwhile the Brussels-based International Press Association (API) railed against the Commission's failure to meet the press.
"A free media, free speech, and the accountability of our leaders is part of our democracy," the API said in a statement. "However we must question this now as once again the EU institutions appear to roll back or hide those fundamental principles in deference to other regimes.
"We can accept of course that today the Chinese do not wish to meet the media, they can't be forced. But we deeply regret that our EU leaders, in some sense of misplaced courtesy, or diplomatic nicety, feel they too should not."
Though the EU is China's largest trading partner -- trade between the two is worth more than one billion euros per day -- a host of problems remain to be resolved, from a row on rare earths and EU carbon emissions to complaints from European firms of lack of access to China's markets.
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