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Munich calls: the annual Munich Security Conference is back with a virtual event later this evening with a high-level line-up of European and US officials, after having been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
It will be the first chance for new US President Joe Biden, who has been a regular in Munich since 1980, to face European allies, anxious to see in person the new face of Washington, and present his slate of foreign policy ideas.
“We have learned in a shocking way that there is no such thing as a permanent, long-term guarantee that the US will always have our back,” MSC chairman Wolfgang Ischinger said told DW.
“Intelligent Europeans will have to deal with the question: What if in four years’ time a president gets elected who runs in the tracks of Donald Trump?”
For Europeans, there are five major transatlantic construction sites to watch this evening, amongst other things:
STRATEGIC AUTONOMY. EU’s chief diplomat Joseph Borrell recently said the arrival of Trump in 2016 has “awakened” the EU from strategic sleepwalking and made it realise it was too dependent on Washington, prompting a trend of boosting Europe’s autonomy. The main question is, will it hold?
Biden will appear next to Merkel, Macron and Johnson in a format that leaves little room for interaction. NATO and EU leaders will also speak. Each speaker for about 15 minutes.
→ To watch: Who will blink first and mention ‘strategic autonomy’?
NATO/DEFENCE SPENDING. This has been the biggest point of contention in the past editions of the MSC. Trump had accused Germany of not contributing enough to NATO, and subsequently withdrew thousands of US forces stationed in the country.
But with Biden, the US insistence on European defence spending is not likely to vanish. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said multiple times that he expects to receive similar pressure, even with the change of administration, only delivered in a different, more friendly tone.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin already urged allies to meet defence-spending targets in his first meetings with counterparts at NATO this week.
→ To watch: In what context and tone will Biden mention the 2% GDP NATO spending goal?
TROOP DEPLOYMENTS. All plans related to the Trump administration’s troop withdrawal from Germany have been put on hold until new Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin reviews the move. That’s one review to be done.
The other issue is previous plans for all foreign troops to leave Afghanistan by 1 May, as agreed in the Doha Agreement that then US President Donald Trump signed with the Taliban last February.
However, conditions for troop departure had not yet been met and peace talks for Afghanistan have not made sufficient progress to allow a withdrawal of foreign troops, NATO defence ministers told their American counterpart this week.
→ To watch: What details will Biden reveal in terms of assurances or deadlines regarding the troop withdrawal plans?
RUSSIA/NORD STREAM 2. Biden has said he believes the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline is a “bad deal for Europe” and his administration will be reviewing restrictions on the project included in a bill that passed during the Trump administration. In fact, it’s a bipartisan (and will undoubtfully be the bug in Biden’s ear), Berlin has said it will not abandon the project, despite US sanctions and calls by the European Parliament to impose EU measures against the Russian-backed gas pipeline project over the case of imprisoned Moscow critic Alexei Navalny.
→ To watch: Will Biden call on Europeans (and especially Germans) to drop the project?
CHINA. Europe has asserted its autonomy from Washington, at least when it comes to relations with Beijing. But some in town are questioning whether it has kept its credibility.
The new Biden administration had asked Europe for coordination on China, but the EU push for the EU-China investment agreement ‘in principle’ in December might have made the reparation of EU-US relations a bit more difficult.
→ To watch: Will Biden confront Europeans on their solo run with the investment deal?
EU IN THE WORLD
MULTILATERALISM. The European Commission this week presented a strategy on how to promote reform, effectiveness and efficiency in the global multilateral system. The strategy proposal picks up on ideas that have been floating around for some time and also comes at a time when shortfalls of the EU’s geopolitical cloud have emerged.
RUSSIA SANCTIONS. Brussels is looking towards a busy foreign affairs week, mostly targeted at finding common ground on EU-Russia relations.
Eastern Europeans, led by Lithuania, have organised a side-meeting on Sunday with Navalny’s top aides, Leonid Volkov and Vladimir Ashurkov, before their official meeting on Monday, EU sources confirmed to EURACTIV earlier this week.
The EU is set to impose travel bans and asset freezes on allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin in March, possibly in the run-up to an EU summit, after a meeting of envoys gave approval for punitive measures, diplomats said.
‘OPERATION SPUTNIK’. Croatia is laying the ground for the purchase of the Russian vaccine Sputnik V while Slovakia said it started a similar discussion on Thursday, despite the fact that Moscow’s vaccines has not been approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA). How far could individual countries go with Sputnik?
EU-INDIA. The European Commission said it wants to “explore options” for expanding the EU’s trade and investment with India, notably ahead of the summit scheduled for May in Porto.
This comes after Portugal’s Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview in January that improved relations between the EU and India, both seeking to end dependence on China, could serve as a vehicle to rebalance the bloc’s arduous ties with Beijing.
POST-TRUMP RESET. NATO’s defence ministers discussed for the first time Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s reform proposals, which NATO leaders are expected to consider at a summit in Brussels planned for later this year, potentially in June.
They aim to convince Trump’s successor Biden to strongly back NATO and to mollify allies frustrated with what they say is the alliance’s failure to coordinate at the political level. However, some members, showed they were rather sceptical of the submission.
At the same time, new US Defense Secretary of State, Lloyd Austin, promised that with the change of power in the White House, the days of American solo efforts would be over.
POINT PERSON. Spencer Boyer, a former intelligence and US State Department official, has been tipped to be the Pentagon’s deputy assistant secretary of defence for Europe and NATO policy, Defense News reports. He is expected to take office 22. February. One of the topics close to his heart seems to be a focus on fighting disinformation.
GREEK WARNING. Eyes back on the Eastern Mediterranean as Greece said it had protested to Turkey over Ankara’s deployment of a research vessel in the Aegean Sea, which Greece called an “unnecessary” move as the NATO allies seek to resume talks over a long-standing maritime dispute.
The pending issues between Athens and Ankara could be discussed and resolved by using NATO as a platform of coordination and cooperation, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said.
TROOPS IN AFRICA. French President Emmanuel Macron has backed away from immediately withdrawing French troops deployed in the Sahel region of north-west Africa following a two-day summit on the future of the mission against Islamic militant groups in the region.
French officials had indicated that Macron was likely to announce a cut of around 600 troops that would reduce France’s military presence in the region to 4,500, leaving the new European mission, the Takuba Task Force, under pressure to beef up their commitments.
At the same time, Portugal’s defence minister said he wants to strengthen political dialogue between the EU and African decision-makers on defence, which he believes is insufficient despite the fact that most European military missions are in Africa.
DEEPFAKE THREATS. Russia continues to be the ‘primary threat’ to the EU in cyberspace, presenting intensifying dangers in terms of online espionage, cyberattacks, and also a likely turn to deepfake technology in the near future, according to a new report from the Estonian intelligence services says.
POLITICAL CRISIS. The political crisis in Georgia is deepening as Prime Minister Georgi Gakharia stepped down on Thursday, citing disagreement with his government over a recent court decision to arrest the main opposition party leader.
Western allies have voiced serious concern about the crisis. Asked by EURACTIV if the EU was prepared to mediate political dialogue, EU spokesperson for foreign affairs, Peter Stano, said the EU was “ready and happy to continue our assistance and help provided to Georgia in whatever way it might be deemed useful by our Georgian partners.”
WHAT ELSE WE’RE READING
- Unfinished Business in the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict [Carnegie Europe]
- Russia Will Never See the United States the Same Way Again [Foreign Affairs]
- Plot twist: How Europe should deal with Libya’s new government [ECFR]
ON OUR RADAR FOR THE NEXT FEW DAYS…
Europe’s everyday business is still stuck in lockdown reality, until further notice. We’ll keep you updated on all relevant EU foreign affairs news, as we enter a busy spring period.
- EU27 video link with Navalny’s top aides Leonid Volkov/
| Sunday, 21 February 2021 | video link
- EU foreign affairs ministers meet on Russia, current affairs
| Monday, 22 February 2021 | Brussels, Belgium
- EU affairs ministers meet on EU-UK, Conference on the Future of Europe
| Tuesday, 23 February 2021 | Brussels, Belgium
- European Parliament’s AFET Committee
| Mo-Tue, 22-23 February 2021 | Brussels, Belgium
- European Commission’s communication on EU’s humanitarian aid in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond
| Wednesday, 24 February 2021 | Brussels, Belgium
- European Parliament’s SEDE Committee
| Wed-Thu, 24-25 February 2021 | Brussels, Belgium
- European summit on COVID-19, security, defence
| Thursday, 25 February 2021 | video link
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