Britain and Europe are too busy with their own divorce to care about Hong Kong’s future. The crack-down on pro-democracy activists after the election of Beijing-backed candidate Carrie Lam as the SAR’s new chief executive has only drawn muted responses from London and Brussels.

Carrie Lam, center, declares her victory in the Hong Kong chief executive election, Hong Kong, March 26, 2017.

As Beijing is more and more openly asserting its influence over political developments in Hong Kong, reactions in Europe range from despondent media coverage to outright disinterest. The British government, which used to stand out in Europe for openly criticizing Beijing’s infringements on the city’s autonomy, appears far too busy with its homemade political challenges than to care about the political future of Hong Kong. Britain’s coming divorce from the EU, made official with the triggering of Article 50 on March 29, is thus already showing paralyzing effects on British and European policy towards Hong Kong. 

This is reflected in British and European reactions to events in Hong Kong following Carrie Lam’s unsurprising election as the Special Administrative Region’s new chief executive on March 26. Immediately after the election of the Beijing-backed candidate, nine leaders of the Occupy Central movement were informed by Hong Kong police that they will be charged for their participation in street protests over two years ago.

Britain no longer speaks up for rule of law in Hong Kong

Back in 2014, then UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg reacted to the Occupy Central protests by stating that he sympathized “a great deal with the brave pro-democracy demonstrators taking to the streets of Hong Kong.” He also stressed that, “universal suffrage must mean real choice for the people of Hong Kong and a proper stake in the 2017 election.” Now, however, the only reactions coming out of Europe were a congratulatory statement by the EU’s representative office on Facebook and an even more diffident statement by the British Consul General, which was basically limited to a perfunctory commitment to the “one country, two systems” principle.

While Europe certainly hasn’t been a pivotal player in Hong Kong politics in the last few years, its loss of interest in the former British crown colony will likely be accelerated by the United Kingdom’ divorce from the EU. In the past, based on the Sino–British Joint Declaration of 1984, the UK saw itself as a guarantor of Hong Kong’s judicial autonomy and rule of law principles enshrined in the 1997 Basic Law, while the EU mostly echoed and amplified British positions. But as Beijing is moving to hollow out the “one country, two systems” principle by reinterpreting the Basic Law to serve its own purposes, Europe seems to lack a strategy to defend the formal status quo.

Societal tensions in Hong Kong are bound to increase

Any European stance on political developments in Hong Kong is bound to be denounced by Beijing as “foreign interference” into what the Chinese government considers a strictly domestic issue. On the other hand, Europe has a strong interest in the long-term economic and social stability of Hong Kong. The former crown colony still serves as a gateway into China for many European companies and offers more legal certainty than the mainland. Even though Beijing has tightened its grip in recent years, Hong Kong’s pluralistic society remains a marketplace for ideas that could not be discussed elsewhere in China.

As Beijing’s increasingly hard line against political dissent has stoke up societal polarization, tensions between pro- and anti-Beijing forces in Hong Kong are likely to flare up more openly in the years to come. But how a divided and disengaged Europe will react to this potentially destabilizing development is now impossible to tell.