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EU not naive in celebrating Biden arrival: Belgian FM

The European Union should “chart its own course” even as it celebrates the arrival of US President Joe Biden in the White House, Belgian Foreign Minister Sophie Wilmes told AFP on Thursday.

“There is an expectation, a hope to be able to work together with a character that is maybe more predictable in his actions, but it is not naive,” Wilmes said in an interview.

“We know that the US will maintain its own agenda. What will change is the approach in terms of multilateralism, in terms of EU relations.”

Wilmes said it was “normal for us to rejoice” at Biden’s willingness to work closer with traditional allies and rejoin the Paris climate accord and World Health Organization.

But she insisted there was no “blissful and naive enthusiasm” on the part of the EU.

“Europe will have to continue to chart its course and not wait for the United States to say which route to follow,” she said.

Former US president Donald Trump tore up the diplomatic rulebook during his four years in power by lashing out at Washington’s long-standing allies on the continent.

The disruption caused by the Trump presidency fuelled calls for the EU to develop “strategic autonomy” and stand alone on the world stage.

“Europe learnt with the administration of Donald Trump how much it was in its interest to free itself, to follow its own trajectory, not against someone, but to put itself in the position of being a credible partner,” Wilmes said.

– ‘A little brutal’ –

Among Trump’s abrupt policy shifts that hit key allies was an agreement he made with the Taliban to pull all foreign forces out of Afghanistan by early May.

The Biden administration and its NATO allies now face a tough decision on whether or not to stick to that deadline.

“We regret the unilateralism of certain decisions, a little brutal, which put the deployment in difficulty,” Wilmes said.

Belgium — which has just under 100 soldiers in Afghanistan — thinks “that there is an interest for the moment in keeping a presence in place if this is likely to allow a sufficiently calm situation to be maintained”.

She said NATO would decide its position on the issue in February when defence ministers gather.

“The decision needs to be taken collectively,” Wilmes said.

On another pressing issue, the top diplomat said Belgium was open to considering EU sanctions on Russia over the arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Baltic states are pushing fellow EU members to expand punitive measures on the Kremlin after the anti-corruption campaigner was detained following his return from Germany where he was treated for a near-fatal poisoning.

EU foreign ministers are set to discuss the issue at a meeting on Monday.

“Belgium has always entered into a dual relationship, without naivety, vis-a-vis Russia with a desire to dissuade while keeping open a channel for dialogue,” Wilmes said.

“But when there are difficulties, as is the case with Alexei Navalny, we must be able to consider taking sanctions. We must see how to consider things together at the European level.”