A further rapprochement with the US, a cooling down with China, and some ‘autonomous’ steps. Multiple events have occurred in Brussels this week, during a NATO ministerial, a European Council with the extraordinary participation of Joe Biden, a Foreign Affairs Council and US-EU bilateral meetings. A change looms in geostrategic balances.
The new US administration has pushed for a rapprochement with Europe, through a diplomatic offensive with the objective of ‘defending democracies against autocracies’ – plus pledges on vaccines made by Biden – to which the EU responded positively. Washington reiterated its proposal to set up a common front within NATO, to confront hard-nosed Beijing and Moscow, who are currently working on cementing their alliance, while Beijing is completing a Middle Eastern tour to make new friends.
In parallel, the US slapped on the wrist those allies flirting with Moscow and Beijing – Germany in particular. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated in an interview that the North Stream 2 is "a bad idea and a bad deal for Europe, for us, for the alliance.” Besides US sanctions, the pipeline now faces criticism at home. A report is expected in May to decide on further steps.
In the meantime, a small tornado hit EU-China relations, supported by many Europeans and sealed by a commercial agreement in December. After EU foreign ministers sanctioned Chinese officials and entities for the mass imprisonment of Muslim Uyghurs, Beijing retaliated by imposing sanctions on several EU officials. These included five members of the European Parliament which has to give the deal the green light. As a result, the agreement is now a risk. The Parliamentary President David Sassoli confirmed this possibility, regretting China’s "serious mistake."
Overall, the Union is showing a firm commitment to the Atlantic partnership. EU High Representative Joseph Borrell announced the launch of an EU-US forum to discuss joint issues on China and the "fullest possible involvement of the United States in the European Union defence initiative,” which could herald multiple future scenarios. In exchange, the US pledged to return to the Iran deal (JPOA) and assist in the Eastern Mediterranean, where the situation has been hijacked by Turkish behaviour.
Indeed, Turkey was a focus of debate for EU leaders, who decided on 25 March to reinvigorate cooperation with the nation, as tensions ease, by offering modernisation of the Customs Union, increasing mobility, and relaunching the 2016 plan on migrants, which has so far been funded to the tune of €6 billion. The move is understandable, given that Ankara hosts millions of Syrian refugees. However, it is not clear how Erdogan, a good multi-table player, will act, as Turkish relationships with China intensifies.
At the beginning of the week, the EU also launched its European Peace Facility instrument, which will allow Brussels to fund the military and defence aspects of its missions, through €5 billion off-budget planned for 2021 – 2027, in a symbolic move to reinforce EU autonomy. Which was, however, conceived in 2018, when international relations were very different.
Caterina Tani in Brussels for MON