Tension on agenda when Pompeo meets EU foreign ministers

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“He wants to talk mainly about China,” said a senior European diplomat. “We also want to talk about other issues.”

A senior EU official insisted that the partnership with the US is still the EU’s “most important bilateral relationship.”

But with the negative messages coming from Washington about what appears to be a daily basis, Europeans are not particularly inclined to give Pompeo what he wants.

Pompeo is one of Trump’s strongest loyalists and defenders, and in addition to China, he is expected to discuss the Middle East, the coronavirus pandemic and the situation in Ukraine, EU diplomats said.

In Washington on Friday, a person familiar with the plans told POLITICO: “Pompeo plans to raise issues related to China and Russia.”

Libya, where tensions peaked on Wednesday, as naval operation irini, which enforces the UN arms embargo, was prevented by Turkish warships, a NATO member, from checking a suspicious cargo ship they were escorting off the coast of the war-torn country. The confrontation has raised fears in Brussels of further escalation of tensions in the Mediterranean.

There is little in common on any of these issues.

Pompeo appears at the EU Foreign Affairs Council meeting by video conference after months in which the pandemic prevented him from travelling to Brussels.

In addition to political disagreements, another problem will be the choreography.

The 27 foreign ministers will be led by the EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell. Yet, “all ministers want to speak, but in an hour and a half, you cannot give every minister a minute to discuss issues such as China or Israel,” a second diplomat told POLITICO.

Between the former transatlantic allies, China has become a divisive issue.

The United States has adopted an aggressive tone against Beijing that is not shared by most EU countries. But even within the EU, there is a great deal of difference of opinion. Hungary is very close to China, but that is not true when it comes to Nordic countries like Sweden.

Stockholm, at the last meeting of EU foreign ministers, was the only member state to push for sanctions against Beijing after deciding to tighten its grip on Hong Kong.

In China, the differences with the United States are striking. Pompeo has defined the Chinese Communist Party as the “central threat of our time” while the EU has a softer tone and Borrell has even denied that Beijing poses a military threat.

The Europeans point out how Washington remains the key ally, but also that it is difficult to be on the same wavelength with a friend who seems to have so little interest in fostering friendship.

Pompeo “wants our help on China because they realized that things have gone too far, but it’s difficult, very difficult … they continue to kick us,” the senior diplomat said. Many of the recent US decisions are seen as undermining EU security: including the announcement to reduce US troops in Germany, or the US reluctance to extend the Start nuclear treaty with Russia, or the decision to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty that allows Russia and Western countries to conduct observation flights on each other’s territory.

EU diplomats are also concerned about decisions that undermine multilateralism, the most recent being Trump’s imposition of sanctions against the International Criminal Court, which Borrell on Thursday called a “grave concern.”

The EU has also disparaged Trump’s Middle East peace plan, drawn up by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and there is not much Europeans agree on with the US when it comes to Israel.

U.S. support for the new Israeli government’s plans to annex parts of the West Bank is particularly contested.

From the EU’s point of view, it can be difficult to distinguish between such a measure and russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea for which the Europeans have imposed sanctions. Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said he saw “no difference” with Russia’s seizure of the Crimean peninsula. “Annexation is annexation,” he told the German weekly Der Spiegel.

The Europeans insist that they still have much in common with the Americans, and that Beijing is the beneficiary of any transatlantic tension.

“Years the transatlantic relationship, there is a great degree of convergence on many issues, but at the same time we need to talk about the things that separate us,” said the senior EU official.

A quick look at what’s happening in the airline industry reveals the implications, the official said. “The Americans acted against Airbus because there was supposed to be European Union aid” while Brussels was considering taking action against Boeing for the same reason.

But “in the meantime, the Chinese are making wide-body aircraft that they will sell to the rest of the world and are heavily subsidized,” he added.

Nahal Toosi contributed to the report.

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