European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and Chinese President Xi Jinping are seen on a screen during a video conference to approve an investment pact between China and the European Union on December 30, 2020 in Brussels, Belgium.  ©2020 Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

When the European Union finally adopted targeted sanctions against Chinese officials deemed responsible for crimes against humanity in Xinjiang in March, few in Brussels expected immediate retaliation from the Chinese government. But if Beijing’s intent was to bully the EU back into silence, the move backfired dramatically.

On May 21, only a few months after the conclusion of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI), a trade deal between the EU and China, the European Parliament adopted a resolution to freeze its ratification. The deal has been controversial in the Parliament given concerns about forced labor in China, its rushed conclusion, and its lack of human rights protections and redress mechanisms. Beijing’s countersanctions against several European lawmakers and institutions managed to unite the European Parliament on CAI like nothing else has, and will now prevent any movement on ratification as long as they remain in place.

The European Parliament has been fiercely critical of China’s human rights violations, adopting numerous damning resolutions and awarding its prestigious Sakharov Prize in 2019 to Ilham Tohti, an ethnic Uyghur scholar sentenced to life imprisonment for his peaceful human rights activities. The Parliament has also begun the process for new due diligence legislation that if adopted would force companies to prevent and address human rights and environmental abuses in their supply chains, making it virtually impossible for them to operate in tightly repressed places like Xinjiang.

Members of the European Parliament should feel proud in their principled stance against China’s horrendous human rights violations and unrelenting bullying of its critics at home and abroad. They should recognize that China’s countersanctions were adopted not because European parliamentarians and institutions were implicated in human rights abuses, but because they dared to criticize China’s.

But rather than linking their opposition to the trade deal to Beijing’s groundless countersanctions, they should stay focused on the real obstacle to closer ties with China: that no institution should agree to preferential trade relations with a government that is committing crimes against humanity.