First EU institution head to visit Tibet

First EU institution head to visit Tibet

ANDREW WILLIS, 07.09.2009, EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS – The president of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), Mario Sepi, will this week become the first head of an EU institution to visit the Chinese autonomous region of Tibet.

Following an invitation from the Chinese Economic and Social Council, Mr Sepi will set out on a fact-finding mission to assess the real economic and social conditions on the ground, with particular emphasis on the areas of employment, education and healthcare.

The Potala palace, Tibet (Photo: wikipedia)

Mr Sepi – who travels with the backing of European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso – says he sees a "slow but steady" improvement in the area of human rights in the country, despite tensions in the neighbouring region of Xinjiang in recent months.

Questioned by journalists as to how free the three-man delegation will be to move around the Tibetan region, the EESC president says so far no requests for meetings have been declined.

"As soon as I accepted the invitation I insisted on being able to meet whoever I liked," says Mr Sepi, whose visit includes meetings with local leaders and NGOs such as the World Wildlife Fund and Save the Children.

Officials in the Brussels institution which represents organised strands of civil society such as trade unions and the business sector, but is frequently criticised for lacking influence, say the less political nature of the body can work to their advantage.

They point to a marked increase in candid dialogue between the two sides during their two meetings of 2008, adding that trade interests between the EU and China have held back higher level political and diplomatic discussion.