EU leaders seek unity on how to face China and US

Eu members states and Western Balkans partners' representants pose as they arrive at the EU-Western Balkans summit at Brdo Castle in Kranj on October 5, 2021. (Photo: AFP)

Brdo Castle, Slovenia | EU leaders held tough discussions on Europe's place in the world at a summit on Tuesday, as they sought unity on how to deal with superpowers China and the United States. 

The gathering at Brdo Castle in Slovenia was their first meeting since June and saw them grapple with the fallout from the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan and a US submarine pact with Australia that enraged France. 

The dinner took place on the eve of an EU-Western Balkans summit in which countries to the bloc's east will seek assurances that they will one day be admitted to the European Union.

"Drawing the lessons of recent crises, we are committed to consolidating our strengths and strengthening our resilience by reducing our critical dependencies," European Council chief Charles Michel said in a statement after over four hours of talks. 

Michel said that in order to become more assertive on the international stage the EU "needs to increase its capacity to act autonomously" as an economic power and on defence. 

But he insisted "we are committed to working with our allies and like-minded partners, in particular the US and within NATO which is the cornerstone of our security."

France is still smarting over a decision last month by Australia to cancel a French submarine deal worth tens of billions of dollars in favour of a US offer.

With anger raw, French President Emmanuel Macron pushed Europe to stand up for itself after doubt was cast over Washington's close allegiance.

While Europe can work in "good faith with its historical partners and allies" it must also pursue "its independence, its sovereignty," Macron said as he arrived for the talks.

He said "we need clarification and re-engagement" from the United States, adding he would hold talks with President Joe Biden on the margins of the G20 in Italy this month. 

"But we need to be clear with ourselves about what we want for ourselves, for our borders, for our security, for our energy, industrial, technological and military independence," he added.

- Afghanistan lessons -

Just ahead of the summit, Macron met with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Paris on a visit aimed at patching up ties. 

A State Department official told reporters there was a "common agreement that we have an opportunity now to deepen and strengthen the coordination" even though "a lot of hard work remains to be done". 

Although some EU nations have backed France, others like Baltic and Nordic countries are reluctant to criticise the US, which they deem their ultimate protector against Russia.

The submarine row came weeks after the US withdrew from Afghanistan and the Taliban swept to power, catching the Europeans off guard.

The Europeans had provided troops for NATO-led missions in the country and were major donors to the overthrown government. 

- Geopolitical shifts -

The collapse in Afghanistan and the submarine fallout have given fresh impetus to those pushing for the EU to develop a separate military capability, with France leading the charge.

"Recent events are symptoms of profound geopolitical shifts. In response, we need to develop our capacity to act," EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell wrote on Twitter.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the dominant EU leader for the past 15 years, attended the summit as coalition talks rumble on in Berlin to come up with a government that will replace hers.

Merkel's cautious, pro-US strategy has dominated Europe and her imminent departure will see leaders like Macron, Italy's Mario Draghi and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte seeking to make their mark.

As leader of the EU's export powerhouse, Merkel has always encouraged close ties with China, but this has also proven harder to defend as Chinese President Xi Jinping's leadership turns more centralised and hard line.

The relationship with Beijing grew even more complicated when an EU-China investment deal wanted by Germany was put on indefinite standby, after both sides exchanged tit-for-tat sanctions over the treatment of the Uyghur Muslim minority in China.

© Agence France-Presse

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