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While the shift to Asia as the world’s economic centre of gravity has already happened, Europe also seems slow to wake up to the realisation that ties with countries in the Indo-Pacific might need to go beyond trade.
Obviously, we’re not speaking about Europe aspiring to be a traditional hard power player in Asia, especially as tensions are too high in the region for Europeans to be interested in military endeavours beyond the growing Franco-British presence.
While the US is redirecting strategic focus to the region as part of its Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, the EU is a top trade and investment partner for many countries in the region.
But France, Germany and the Netherlands are currently the only EU countries that have adopted Indo-Pacific guidelines. Portugal, currently holding the reigns of the EU Council presidency, has strong historical ties with India.
Asked by EURACTIV, whether he hopes for a closer EU relationship with India to counterweight the bloc’s relations with China, Portuguese Foreign Minister Santos Silva said he would rather speak of a “rebalance” of ties.
“This is our aim, we don’t hide it, and it is why we proposed a high-level meeting with India following the high-level meeting with China,” Santos Silva said, which will be the central point of the Portuguese EU presidency.
However, many experts believe the EU and India will not automatically draw closer merely because both are disillusioned with China.
“The EU should now abandon its position of focusing on comprehensive agreements and seek partial agreements in areas of strategic importance. – India, in turn, should recognise that US-China rivalry means the EU is an economic and political partner it cannot do without,” Manisha Reuter, Programme Coordinator of the Asia programme of the European Council of Foreign Relations (ECFR) said.
“As an external actor, the best Brussels can do is to find a way to simultaneously boost China-EU and India-EU ties instead of falling into the trap of moving closer to one of them while distancing itself from the other,” she concluded.
“We shall reach a common understanding of what is going on in Asia and in the Indo-Pacific region, together with our American friends,” Santos Silva said.
At the same time, after six years of talks, the EU and the ASEAN group of ten Southeast Asian countries last year upgraded their relations from “dialogue” to “strategic partnership”, shortly after 15 countries in the Indo-Pacific region signed a common economic and trade agreement, representing one-third of the world population and about one-third of its GDP.
→ For other talking points, read the full interview (we also have video highlights for those in a hurry):
EU IN THE WORLD
NAVALNY SANCTIONS. Despite calls from the Baltic countries, Poland, Italy and Romania, EU foreign ministers this week held off from imposing fresh sanctions on Russian officials in response to the detention of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
For some Brussels pundits, it was less of a surprise, especially when we think back to last year’s drawn out discussions on whether to impose sanctions on Belarus or Turkey.
Some EU diplomats have said sanctions should be imposed if Navalny is not released by 15 February when his initial 30-day detention period ordered by the Russian authorities is supposed to end. The other underlying idea was to wait until after the EU summit in March and let EU leaders deal directly with the issue.
In any case, this means no inauguration of the EU’s Magnitsky-style sanctions regime yet.
EU High Representative Josep Borrell is also scheduled for a trip to Moscow next week, and according to the Commission, he is attending a long-lasting invitation from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. It doesn’t look promising but the visit could hold a surprise.
RESUMED TALKS. Turkey and Greece resumed talks aimed at addressing long-standing maritime disputes this week, ending a five-year hiatus after months of tension in the eastern Mediterranean. Analysts have said an immediate breakthrough is unlikely given decades-old policy differences, but that resuming dialogue is an important first step after EU pressure on Ankara.
FOSSIL FUELS. EU foreign ministers have agreed to promote a global phase-out of fossil fuels and reaffirmed commitments to finance climate adaptation measures. Moreover, all EU trade agreements, overseas aid and foreign investment strategies will from now on also need to be aligned with the bloc’s climate ambitions.
VACCINE EXPORTS. Europe’s fight to secure COVID-19 vaccine supplies intensified this week when the EU warned drug companies such as AstraZeneca that it would use all legal means or even block exports unless they agreed to deliver shots as promised. However, Europe’s intention to control the exports of COVID-19 vaccines to foreign countries risks retaliation from other regions, the EU pharma industry has warned.
DIPLOMATIC SPAT. An EU-UK row has developed over the past two weeks as British officials had insisted they will not grant the EU’s ambassador to London, Joao Vale Almeida, one of the EU’s most senior diplomats, full diplomatic privileges on the grounds that the EU is not a nation-state. Josep Borrell, insisted that the EU and UK would resolve the diplomatic row though he warned that the UK’s intransigence was “not a friendly signal”.
EQUAL COOPERATION. EU lawmakers urged in a recent report Europe should move away from a donor-recipient relationship with Africa and cooperate as equals instead. They also called for substantial funds to be earmarked in the upcoming budget designed to support the EU’s foreign policy.
And by the way, as European lawmakers demand more transparency around COVID vaccine contracts, a EURACTIV analysis has found that nearly a quarter of the CureVac COVID vaccine contract made available to MEPs last week, including nearly two-thirds of its Annexes, has been redacted.
DOOMSDAY CLOCK. After a year marked by the COVID-19 pandemic and continued fears over nuclear risks and climate change, the symbolic Doomsday Clock remains stuck at the same time as last year.
The announcement came only a day after the 2010 New START Treaty, a threatened milestone accord between Moscow and Washington which caps nuclear warhead numbers, was salvaged from expiring in February 2021. In one of the first major foreign policy decisions of the new US administration, Washington and Moscow have struck a deal to extend the accord.
EU MISSIONS. The financial efforts and missions of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) in Africa do not translate into “real political influence”, Portugal’s defence minister, João Gomes Cravinho argued. A direct swipe against the French?
STRATEGIC COMPASS. After the first phase, which was presented to EU member states in November, Gomes Cravinho said that during its EU presidency, Portugal would “contribute to the drafting work that the European External Action Service (EEAS) is carrying out” through “concrete proposals” but also with “public events in Lisbon and Brussels, stimulating debate in European society,” EURACTIV’s media partner Lusa.pt reports.
“We hope to adopt conclusions on the Strategic Compass at the defence ministers’ council on 4 May,” Gomes Cravinho confirmed.
DEFENCE SPENDING. At €186 billion, total defence expenditure by the 26 European Defence Agency (EDA) members corresponds to 1.4% of their GDP and marks the fifth year of consecutive growth, according to the agency’s annual “Defence Data” report.
BLACK SEA. The US Navy has three warships operating in the Black Sea, stepping up its presence in the region after a drop in NATO maritime activity there last year. While Georgia’s normalisation with Russia is still in doubt because of the country’s breakaway regions, Georgia has embraced a pro-Western foreign policy, and an increased EU focus on the Black Sea and South Caucasus highlights Georgia’s strategic importance.
PHONE DIPLOMACY. EU and US diplomats, meanwhile, discussed how to “repair” their ties under President Joe Biden as Brussels and Washington.
Some of the best bits of Biden’s phone diplomacy so far:
- the UK was first (obviously, ‘special relationship’ klaxon)
- France was the first EU member to have the pleasure of a call, but Macron’s call readout omitted to mention the transatlantic relationship and NATO, while Biden’s did (as a plus US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken is Francophone, so his talk with French Foreign Minister Yves Le Drian was in French)
- White House readout of the Biden-Merkel call mentioned China and Russia, Germany’s version omitted both issues, but Biden got an invite from Merkel
- with NATO Biden went to town and even a social media-friendly video bit was produced, also the next NATO summit could happen soon
ACCESSION HOPES. The recent visit to Brussels of Georgia’s President Salome Zourabishvili has highlighted the country’s determination to pursue a very ambitious EU agenda, despite the challenge of the Covid pandemic and the difficult international climate. In a Special Report, EURACTIV looked into the details.
UNITY RESTORED? The exchange of territory between Serbia and Kosovo would be “very dangerous,” EU envoy Miroslav Lajčak said, adding that the EU was pleased that unity between the EU and the US regarding Western Balkans’ policies had been restored.
CHINA TIES. Chinese President Xi Jinping, opening the forum, called for a return to multilateralism, warning against a “new Cold War”, and urged global unity in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. They were his first remarks to an international audience since the inauguration of President Biden, who had emphasised the need for Western democracies to work together to confront China.
At the same time, the European Commission said that Beijing knows it must deliver on labour commitments in an EU-China investment deal, rebuffing criticism that Brussels had given too much ground on rights.
NORD STREAM 2. The Russian ship ‘Fortuna’, tasked with completing the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, has restarted its work in waters off Denmark. Washington has already reiterated it believes the pipeline is a “bad deal for Europe”.
The German government, however, has no intention to 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 Navalny case.
WHAT ELSE WE’RE READING
- China Enters the Arctic Digitization Race [The National Interest]
- Germany Is Pouring Cold Water on the Biden-Europe Love Fest [Foreign Policy]
- What can Europe offer Biden on Security and Defence[Carnegie]
- Alphonse Mucha’s ‘Slav Epic’ Masterpiece, Explained [RFE/RL]
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 kick off into the new year.
- Arctic Frontiers Conference
| Mo-Thu, 1-4 February 2021 | Tromso, Norway
- Kremlin critic Navalny appears in court
| Tuesday, 2 February 2021 | Moscow, Russia
- EU chief diplomat Borrell’s Russia trip
| Friday, 5 February 2021 | Moscow, Russia
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[Edited by Benjamin Fox]