EU leaders are meeting on Tuesday to discuss Europe’s place in the world as they seek unity on how to approach relations with the superpowers China, the United States and the Western Balkans.
27 EU heads of state and government meet at a castle in the former Yugoslav republic of Slovenia, which holds the rotating EU presidency.
This is an informal meeting of the Council of Europe.
“This is the first time the leaders have met since June, and with everything that’s happened, it looks like it was years ago,” said a senior EU diplomat.
The EU’s six Western Balkan partners, Albania and the other former Yugoslav republics of North Macedonia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Serbia and Kosovo, were invited to a “working dinner” on the eve of the EU-Western Balkans summit on 6 October.
According to the invitation letter sent by the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, who organized the summits, the leaders will have a “strategic discussion about the role of the EU on the international stage” at the dinner.
French President Emmanuel Macron is expected to again warn his partners that Washington’s close commitment to Europe should no longer be taken lightly, and Paris is still worried about the cancellation of a major submarine contract that benefits the United States.
“It would be a mistake to pretend that nothing happened,” a French presidential source said before the talks.
France was infuriated last month after Australia canceled a €56 billion submarine contract, saying it would buy US nuclear submarines amid escalating tensions with China.
EU boosts support for France over submarine fight in Australia
While EU partners have expressed varying degrees of solidarity with Paris, the Baltic and Scandinavian countries are reluctant to criticize the Cold War superpower they see as their ultimate protectors against Russia.
The reservist debacle came weeks after the US withdrew its troops from Afghanistan two decades after the Taliban came to power and caught the Europeans off guard.
Under NATO’s auspices, the Europeans provided troops and donated heavily to the overthrown Afghan regime. The EU has warned it will not recognize the Taliban government, which is made up of predominantly male Islamist extremists.
The collapse in Afghanistan – on top of the submarine fallout – gave new impetus to those pushing the French-led EU to develop its own military capabilities.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the most influential leader of the EU for the last 15 years, will attend the EU meeting as the coalition talks in Germany after the elections last week have not yet resulted in a government.
Merkel’s cautious pro-US strategy has dominated Europe, and her soon-to-be departure will see leaders like Macron, Italy’s Mario Draghi and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte hope to leave a mark.
As leader of Germany, the EU’s export power, Merkel has always encouraged close ties with China, but this has been harder to defend as Chinese President Xi Jinping’s leadership has become increasingly centralized and rigid.
Relations with Beijing were further complicated when an EU-China investment deal that Germany wanted was suspended indefinitely after the two sides exchanged end-to-end sanctions over the treatment of China’s Uighur Muslim minority.
EU suspends major China investment deal
Brussels is also concerned about China’s growing influence in some EU countries, including the former Yugoslav republics, which Beijing has included in the “16+1” cooperation project, which is part of the massive Belt and Road Initiative. The controversial trillion-dollar infrastructure investment plan covers parts of Africa as well as the Eurasian continent.
The meeting of EU leaders coincides with the visit of the French Senate delegation to Taipei, led by former defense minister Alain Richard. This comes at a time when Beijing, which sees Taiwan as a renegade province, is launching fighter jet attacks into Taiwanese airspace.
Spain, meanwhile, will highlight more pressing concerns, with France, Greece and Poland taking action, calling for a bold EU response to the spike in energy prices.
The EU Commission is expected to offer short-term solutions to the energy crisis by discussing it more deeply by the leaders at the summit to be held on October 21-22.
Originally published on RFI