BRDO (Slovenia) - EU leaders held tough discussions on Europe's place in the world at a summit on Tuesday, as they seek unity on how to deal with superpowers China and the United States.
The gathering at Brdo Castle in Slovenia was their first meeting since June and will see them grapple with the fallout from the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan and a US submarine pact with Australia that enraged France.
The dinner -- where no concrete outcome is expected -- was taking place on the eve of an EU-Western Balkans summit in which countries to the bloc's east will seek assurances that they will one day be admitted to the European Union.
"It will be the occasion to address the EU's role on the international stage -- especially after the latest geopolitical developments in Afghanistan, in the Indo-Pacific, also our relations with China," EU Council chief Charles Michel said at the start of the sit-down.
"We are fully committed to the multilateral approach and need strong partners, strong allies".
France is still smarting over a decision last month by Australia to cancel a French submarine deal worth tens of billions of dollars in favor of a US offer.
With anger raw, French President Emmanuel Macron is expected to again warn at the talks that Washington's close allegiance to Europe is no longer a given.
While Europe can work in "good faith with its historical partners and allies" it must also pursue "its independence, its sovereignty," Macron said as he arrived for the talks.
As the informal summit got underway the French leader said "we need clarification and re-engagement" from the United States.
"But we need to be clear with ourselves about what we want for ourselves, for our borders, for our security, for our energy, industrial, technological and military independence," he added.
Just ahead of the summit, Macron met with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Paris on a visit aimed at patching up ties.
A state department official told reporters there was a "common agreement that we have an opportunity now to deepen and strengthen the coordination" even though "a lot of hard work remains to be done".
Although some EU nations have backed France, others like Baltic and Nordic countries are reluctant to criticize the US, which they deem their ultimate protector against Russia.
US President Joe Biden stressed the bloc was a "fundamental partner" for Washington in a call on Monday with EU chief Ursula von der Leyen, the White House said.
The submarine row came weeks after the US withdrew from Afghanistan and the Taliban swept to power, catching the Europeans off guard.
The Europeans had provided troops for NATO-led missions in the country and were major donors to the overthrown government.
The collapse in Afghanistan and the submarine fallout have given fresh impetus to those pushing for the EU to develop a separate military capability, with France leading the charge.
"Recent events are symptoms of profound geopolitical shifts. In response, we need to develop our capacity to act," EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell wrote on Twitter.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the dominant EU leader for the past 15 years, attended the summit as coalition talks rumble on in Berlin to come up with a government that will replace hers.
Merkel's cautious, pro-US strategy has dominated Europe and her imminent departure will see leaders like Macron, Italy's Mario Draghi and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte seeking to make their mark.
As leader of the EU's export powerhouse, Merkel has always encouraged close ties with China, but this has also proven harder to defend as Chinese President Xi Jinping's leadership turns more centralized and hard line.
The relationship with Beijing grew even more complicated when an EU-China investment deal wanted by Germany was put on indefinite standby, after both sides exchanged tit-for-tat sanctions over the treatment of the Uyghur Muslim minority in China.