Europe’s friendly giant bids farewell to Hong Kong

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Vincent Piket, the EU’s point man in Hong Kong who is heading back to Brussels, gives his take on Brexit, EU-Hong Kong relations and Europe’s take on Hong Kong during a tumultuous time.


Vincent Piket casts a long shadow on Hong Kong, and not just due to his typically tall Dutch frame. The All-European diplomat has enlarged the stature of the European Union office in his four years that have seen an unlikely high level of momentous events in both Europe and Hong Kong ranging from recovery from the Atlantic financial crisis of 2008 to Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution. The Brexit referendum closed out his time in Hong Kong, ending on July 15, and its import was not lost on him.

“The bottom line remains that, for the next two or three years, nothing will change legally for as long as the UK is a member state. Here in Hong Kong, we cooperate with the UK diplomatic mission in exactly the same way as before. That will continue even during the phase of the negotiations. Only when the force is viable and enacted, then of course you have a different situation,” Mr Piket explains. “We have a task to implement it and respect the interests of both sides. At the same time, we have the interest in constructing the best possible relationship that responds to mutual needs. That being said, a very high degree of economic integration is possible only if you take on board all sorts of other aspects. What sort of relationship does the UK seek? That is the key question that the UK will have to ask itself.”

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“Business will continue and all the cooperation we have established with Hong Kong will continue. Hong Kong and the EU trade under the WTO rules, so there is no difficulty there. The UK’s share accounts for 15% of the total EU-Hong Kong trade. Not insignificant, but we do not know whether it is purely bilateral or that Hong Kong uses the UK as a hub for re-exporting goods to other EU member states. It is impossible to predict the impact [of a Brexit] in this sense. Our relations with Hong Kong are strong and I have every confidence that will continue with a very open trade policy of the EU that will remain with or without the UK.,” he adds.

 

Hong Kong style

Brexit aside, the four-year tenure has never been easy for Mr Piket. When he took on the position in September 2012, Europe was still struggling to get out of the debt crisis. One of his major tasks then was to rebuild investors’ confidence, and the sub-sovereign state did not fail to impress him in the process.

“In my first couple of months, I have already met with some extremely dynamic and successful people with strikingly interesting stories. One of the hallmarks of Hong Kong is its high density of bright, intelligent and entrepreneurial people,” Mr Piket recalls. “For a diplomat, Hong Kong is an excellent place to work. Access to top levels of the government is easy. That is the same for Legco as well as for business community … I find [the job] very different from working in a capital of a sovereign country. Here you have a very atypical diplomatic job without the classical multilateral relations. You have a very specific agenda related to Hong Kong within the remit of the Basic Law and the EU-Hong Kong relations.”

That uniqueness came more clearly into play in the following years as they marked a series of political developments that hardly escaped the EU’s radar. The Umbrella Movement, aka the Occupy Movement that took place between September and December 2014, and the political reform efforts were two of the highlights.

“One of the most memorable events … has to be this outburst of political desire in the Occupy demonstration. That drive of enthusiasm of young people, and at the same time the self-discipline they had, and also the law enforcement (except one or two incidents) was impressive,” Mr Piket says. “Where else would a government let demonstrators occupy major roads in the centre of the city? In many other places in the world, it would have probably ended in street battles.”

 

Talks for one side

The EU Office has tried to play a constructive role in the process, though not always gratefully taken – or accurately reported. In June last year, ahead of the political reform vote in the Legco, Mr Piket hosted a meeting between representatives of the EU member states and pan-democratic lawmakers to share thoughts over political reform. It was, however, misreported as an attempt to persuade the lawmakers to accept the proposal laid out by the Central Government, which was deemed undemocratic by the opposition, prompting Mr Piket to issue a clarification statement.

“There was nothing secretive about us meeting with pan-democratic groups or pro-establishment groups. That’s a job you do as a diplomat as long as you respect the rules,” Mr Piket asserts. “The EU hopes very much that the electoral reform can be resumed when the political circumstance is right.”

More recently, the Office made the headlines in local media outlets, this time for expressing concerns over the booksellers incident. As Mr Piket reiterates, it is “the most serious violation of the Basic Law” since the handover. He calls on parties involved to work to restore the trust in ‘One Country, Two System’.

 

Settled, not done

Developments in the business side may be more subtle, but no less significant. Now with the EU tax blacklisting of Hong Kong settled, Mr Piket is looking ahead and calls on the city’s tax authorities to catch up with ever increasing standards.

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“The blacklisting is no longer the case, but the expectations regarding tax transparency and fair taxation have only gone up because the standards of the OECD and G20 level are going up. The Panama Papers have added the political highlights to the whole issue. This is a topic on which the EU will want to work closely with Hong Kong in an engaging way. We are moving to the corporate taxation level now and will try to build a corporation relationship that we want. Only if that doesn’t work, the blacklist may happen, but we are nowhere near that,” Piket elaborates. “People in Brussels and elsewhere see very well that Hong Kong is making an effort on the legislative level. The Automatic Exchange (AEOI) amendment was adopted and needs to be implemented by 1 January next year. The model Hong Kong has chosen is more laborious as it’s a bilateral one which will create extra implementation challenges, but we will see.”

 

Final notes

A reception was held on 11 July to bid farewell to the Pikets. Distinguished guests included Secretary for Education Eddie Ng Hak-kim (吳克儉), veteran Democrat Martin Lee Chu-ming (李柱銘), former Secretary for Justice Elsie Leung Oi-sie (梁愛詩), Liberal Party lawmaker Felix Chung Kwok-pan (鍾國斌), Vice-Chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong Professor Joseph Sung Jao-yiu (沈祖堯). Clifford Hart, retiring Consul General of the United States, was also present.

“All in all, Hong Kong is a fantastic place to live in, as long as my employer pays my housing. The work is great and dynamic, and there is so much going on for social life. It takes like 15 to 20 minutes from my office to the beach in Deep Water Bay. Where on earth can you do that?” Mr Piket says.