EU leaders will have a hard discussion on Europe’s place in the world at a summit on Tuesday, as they seek unity on how to deal with superpowers China and the United States.
The 27 heads of state and government will meet at Brdo Castle in Slovenia, the country that currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency.
While no concrete outcome is expected, it is the first leaders meeting since June, one senior EU diplomat commenting that “with everything that has happened, that seems ages ago”.
The dinner takes place on the eve of an EU-Western Balkans summit in which countries to the bloc’s east will seek assurances they will one day be admitted to the European Union.
Leaders will have a “strategic discussion on the role of the Union on the international stage”, according to an invitation letter sent out by EU Council chief Charles Michel.
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 still raw, French President Emmanuel Macron is expected to again warn at the talks that Washington’s close allegiance to Europe is no longer a given.
“It would be a mistake to pretend that nothing happened,” said a French presidency source.
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.
US President Joe Biden stressed the bloc was a “fundamental partner” for Washington in a call on Monday with EU chief Ursula von der Leyen, the White House said.
An EU official said the call — which covered China, EU defence efforts, and trade — showed Biden wanted to “strengthen dialogue” with Europe.
Next week, the bloc’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell will head to Washington for talks with Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
– Afghanistan lessons –
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.
The collapse in Afghanistan and the submarine fallout has given fresh impetus to those pushing for the EU to develop a separate military capability, with France leading the charge.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the dominant EU leader for the past 15 years, will attend 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.
Spain will highlight more immediate concerns, calling for a bold EU answer to focus on the sudden rise in energy prices, with France, Greece and Poland also seeking action.
The issue is to be given more in-depth discussion by leaders at a summit in Brussels on October 21-22.