BRDO, SLOVENIA (REUTERS) - The European Union's 27 leaders began tracing out a new approach to China on Tuesday (Oct 5) at their first summit on Sino-European strategy since the bloc imposed sanctions on Beijing in March, drawing retaliation that jeopardised a new investment pact.
Over dinner at a Slovenian castle, leaders also deliberated over how to forge a more forceful European foreign policy after Washington ignored European pleas to extend the pullout from Afghanistan and formed the Aukus security pact with Australia and Britain to counter China that excluded France.
"We have all observed what happened in Afghanistan, what happened in the Indo-Pacific, what happened with China," European Council President Charles Michel, who is chairing the summit, said, referring to US strategy that undermined EU priorities.
He said the EU needed to show "collective intelligence" to shape Europe's response.
"Our unity is a very strong asset, the multilateral approach is the DNA of the European Union," Michel said as he arrived for the summit dinner.
EU leaders also heard from French President Emmanuel Macron on how Paris believes the bloc should project strength in international affairs. He has long argued that the EU should be able to act independently of the United States.
Many in Europe now see the abrupt US pullout of Afghanistan, during which allies felt ignored when they pleaded for more time, as a warning that Washington under President Joe Biden is putting its own foreign policy interests first.
As the world's largest trading bloc, the EU wields power in setting rules that can shape policy far beyond its borders, but it has repeatedly failed to coordinate a common foreign and military policy, weakening its influence.
Along with the US, Britain and Canada, the EU imposed sanctions on Chinese officials on March 22 over human rights abuses, which Beijing denies. Beijing immediately hit the EU with sanctions on European Parliament lawmakers, freezing approval of a recently agreed EU-China investment deal.
Senior EU officials and diplomats hope the informal gathering at a castle in Brdo can be a moment to debate both becoming more independent of the US and playing a part in Washington's foreign policy shift to Asia.
The summit dinner discussion has been given the title "The EU's place in the world" by officials in Brussels. No decisions are expected.
"The United States has recognised the importance of a stronger and more capable European defence," EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Tuesday before leaving for Slovenia. "Crises in the European neighbourhood are a call for us to react."
Australia's decision to cancel a big submarine contract with France and opt for US-designed nuclear-powered submarines instead as part of the new Aukus pact with Washington and London incensed Paris, but could give impetus to EU common defence plans.
"We could turn a blind eye and act as if nothing had happened. We think that would be a mistake for all Europeans," an adviser to Macron told reporters. "There really is an opportunity here."
Borrell also called that development a "wake-up call", while insisting that Washington remained Brussels' closest ally.
The EU leaders will be joined on Wednesday by the six Balkan countries hoping one day to join the bloc.