The Estonian president was the only European head of state who met with the Dalai Lama, but other member states failed to show much solidarity. Catherine Ashton raised the issue of Tibet but repression continues.
The issue of cultural and religious rights in Tibet – and, in particular, meetings between the Dalai Lama and European leaders – are a source of conflict between China and the EU. In 2011, the situation in China’s Tibetan regions deteriorated, with an increase in self-immolation by monks in protest at government control of religious activities. In response to MEPs, Catherine Ashton said the EU embassy would raise the issue with the Chinese authorities. In November, following the Dalai Lama’s retirement, the new head of the Tibetan government-in-exile spoke at the European Parliament, which provoked an angry response from China. But member states, particularly indebted ones such as Greece that were in desperate need of investment and felt betrayed by Europe, were mostly prepared to keep quiet about Tibet or even to actively collude with China. For example, Hungary even detained Tibetan protesters during a visit by Wen Jiabao.
In the 1990s, many European political leaders met with the Dalai Lama. But in the last four years, China has shown that it is capable of exerting pressure even on larger member states such as France and Germany through “soft” sanctions such as blocking ministerial visits and official deals. In 2011, the Dalai Lama visited Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Ireland and Sweden. But the only European head of state who received him was Estonian President Toomas Ilves – and China immediately reciprocated by cancelling official ministerial meetings. Even Scandinavian political leaders no longer dare to meet with the Dalai Lama. This illustrates how EU member states show each other as little solidarity on this issue as they do Norway, which is being penalised for the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo. If the EU were united, China would be less successful with its “soft” sanctions. For example, China took no action against the US after President Barack Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama in July.