EU leaders discuss defense, US and China relationships
BRDO CASTLE, Slovenia (AP) — European Union leaders met for the first time Tuesday since the messy Western troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and France's loss of a multi-billion dollar submarine deal with Australia, events that they argue have exposed Europe's need for more autonomy on defense.
With the 27-nation trade bloc’s tense relationship with China and rising energy prices also on agenda, they had plenty to discuss during their dinner at Brdo Castle in Slovenia. They have a summit with leaders from neighboring Balkans countries scheduled Wednesday.
The informal talks were intended to prepare the ground for an EU summit later this month in Brussels and a March meeting focusing on European defense.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who has for years pushed for a greater strategic autonomy for the bloc, was expected to lead the dinner discussion on AUKUS, the Indo-Pacific defense deal between the U.S., Australia and Britain that led Australia to cancel the contract for diesel-electric French submarines.
“The dinner will focus on the role of the European Union on the international scene —- a vast program - but more specifically in light of recent developments in Afghanistan, the AUKUS episode, and more generally, what this says about the trans-Atlantic relationship,” an EU official involved in the meeting preparations said. The official spoke anonymously in accordance with EU practice.
Australia is acquiring U.S. nuclear-powered vessels instead of the French submarines. The Australian government's move has infuriated France, which is seeking clarification from Washington about its commitment to European allies. Several EU member countries have expressed solidarity with France.
Macron and U.S. President Joe Biden have discussed the rift over the phone to ease tensions, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Macron in Paris on Tuesday to try to restore the French government's trust.
The chief of the EU's executive branch, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen spoke with Biden by phone on the eve of the summit. Von der Leyen said they discussed climate change, defense, trade, the Western Balkans and other geopolitical issues.
Macron is now calling on France's EU allies to use the bloc's shortcomings in Afghanistan and the fallout of AUKUS as a springboard for developing European defense capabilities while at the same time strengthening ties with the U.S.
EU Council President Charles Michel also advocates more strategic autonomy through a partnership between the European Union and NATO.
“NATO is a security pillar on which we rely, and at the same time we see that we need to be able to act more autonomously to make our alliances stronger," Michel said. “Strong allies make strong alliances."
The 27 leaders were also expected to reassess their relation with China, a theme they have not discussed as a group for over a year. Since their last talks, the bloc adopted a massive investment deal with Beijing but also approved sanctions against Chinese officials over human rights abuses in the far western Xinjiang region.
“After one year, in this global world, when we see tensions between the U.S. and China, we will clarify our position," said another EU official who spoke anonymously.
Hours before the leaders’ dinner, police fired tear gas and water cannons at anti-government protesters in Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana, located about 30 kilometers away.
Hundreds of protesters showed up to oppose the Slovenian government’s pandemic restrictions. The demonstration was not directly linked to the EU summit, but protest leaders apparently sought the opportunity to get more media attention from foreign reporters covering the event.
Associated Press writer Dusan Stojanovic contributed to this report in Ljubljana, Slovenia.