European Union leaders seek to unite against Washington and Beijing

After the Afghan crisis, the submarine crisis and the expected departure of Angela Merkel from her post, the leaders of the European Union met in Slovenia on Tuesday to close ranks against the United States and China, the two rival superpowers.

The leaders of 27 countries and governments arrived before 7 pm (5 pm GMT) at the Brdo Palace, near the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana, to meet over a dinner on the eve of the summit dedicated to expanding the membership of the Union in the Western Balkans.

Although no decision is expected, "this is the first time they have met since June, which is in a very long time" in light of the turmoil of recent months, according to a senior diplomat.

In his letter inviting them to Slovenia, which holds the EU's rotating presidency, European Council President Charles Michel called for a "strategic debate on the EU's role in the international arena".

"The European Union must strengthen its influence," he said, referring to "recent developments in Afghanistan" and the announcement of the military agreement between the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom that caused a crisis with France, as well as "relations with China."

There is no doubt that French President Emmanuel Macron, still upset about Canberra ending a huge contract to buy French submarines, will try to persuade his European partners to renew their solidarity with Paris and free themselves from the American ally.

"The most important advantage of a business dinner of this kind with a wide range of discussions is that it allows for a free discussion," said a consultant at the Elysee.

Before leaving for Slovenia, Macron met with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, who is visiting Paris.

But within the European Union, northern and Baltic states have urged caution and emphasized maintaining the transatlantic relationship.

"The European Union cannot be closed in on itself," Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven was quoted as saying by the national news agency, stressing that he wanted to "develop cooperation with both China and the United States."

US President Joe Biden, who was keen to make pledges after this incident, described the European Union as a "key partner" in a phone conversation Monday with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the White House announced.

The submarine affair came a few weeks after the chaotic withdrawal of the US military from Afghanistan in August, reviving the debate about strengthening Europe's independence.

There has been discussion for months about the creation of a European rapid reaction force of 5,000 soldiers, and the recent fiasco has brought it back to the table by highlighting Europe's military shortcomings, and France is leading the talks on this file.

Migration is likely to be on the agenda as well, as the EU wants to avoid an influx of refugees as happened in 2015.

It will be one of the last summits of Chancellor Angela Merkel, the central figure in the European Union for 15 years, as tough negotiations begin in Germany to form a new government.

Her cautious pro-US strategy has prevailed thus far, but her departure opens the door to other leaders, such as French President Emmanuel Macron, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and his Dutch counterpart Mark Rutte, who want to make their mark.

On China, the mouth-watering market for powerful German industries, Merkel has worked to court, but the end-2020 investment agreement between Brussels and Beijing has been suspended indefinitely amid tensions over human rights.

Among the other topics that will be discussed around the dinner, according to the French presidency, is “the rise in energy prices”, a matter that worries many European countries such as Spain, Greece and Poland.

In the face of this rise, which fears its social repercussions, the European Commission is expected to propose short-term solutions next week, pending a deepening of the discussion at the EU summit on October 21-22.

On the sidelines of the meeting, opponents of the COVID-19 vaccine organized protests involving thousands of people in central Ljubljana. Police used water cannons and tear gas to disperse them.

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