EU ministers keep calm and improve defense capabilities | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 14.11.2016
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EU ministers keep calm and improve defense capabilities

US president-elect Donald Trump has caused concern in the EU with his comments about NATO and the Iran nuclear deal. The bloc's foreign ministers are taking a self-reliant approach, as Teri Schultz reports from Brussels.

European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini hoped that bringing in EU foreign ministers for an informal dinner Sunday night would quell the need to talk about US President-elect Donald J. Trump at the regular foreign affairs ministerial Monday, where such weighty issues as EU security and defense, relations with Turkey and Syrian sanctions were on the agenda.

The plan seemed largely to work, though there's no denying the specter of uncertainty the EU is now working under, as it moves forward with improving its members' ability to defend themselves and each other without knowing whether and how Trump will indeed curb NATO's collective-defense capacity, as threatened.

Mogherini presented plans to the foreign ministers - joined Monday afternoon by their defense counterparts - that include upscaled ambition for funding defense capabilities, acquiring more equipment, and getting the longstanding but never-deployed "EU battle groups" into useful service.

No 'EU army'

She envisions there could eventually be an operational "headquarters" established to coordinate both EU military and civilian missions, of which there are currently 16 utilizing five different operational headquarters hosted by member states. But she is not, Mogherini has reiterated emphatically, calling for an "EU army"; EU officials insist that term appears nowhere in planning documents for stepped-up defense plans.

As the fighting in Syria's Aleppo continues to worsen, foreign ministers added 17 Syrian officials and the governor of the central bank to the 216 other individuals already on the EU sanctions list for "being responsible for the violent repression against the civilian population in Syria, benefiting from or supporting the regime, and/or being associated with such persons."

Ministers went ahead with reaffirming their commitment to the multilateral agreement curbing Iran's nuclear program in exchange for lifting international sanctions. The deal, to which Washington is a signatory, remains controversial in the US and could be one of the first direct conflicts with the new US president. He calls it "worst deal ever negotiated" and has promised he'll do everything possible to get out of it. Mogherini helped shepherd the accord to a conclusion.

Though French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault skipped the confab Sunday night, he made his views clear Monday. Ayrault pointed out that the world's uncertainty hadn't started with the Trump win, and that Europe must "not wait for others' decisions; it must defend its own interests" by strengthening its global role.

Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said it had been "very interesting" to talk about Trump, but said more importantly the dinner had served as a transition to focus on the "possibilty for the EU to go further ... we need to enhance our capacity in defense and security."

Trump/Putin juxtaposed

The admiration Trump has expressed for Russian President Vladimir Putin does not go down well with everyone

Potential Trump truces cause concern

But the biggest concerns are about whether the new US leader will cozy up, as some fear, to hard-line leaders including Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and even Syria's Bashar al-Assad. Reynders has frequently complained that major international issues are already being discussed primarily between Washington and Moscow, urging Brussels to assert itself more effectively.

Luxembourg's Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said better US-Russian relations would be a positive development "as long as it's not at the cost of the EU." But Asselborn also got in a jab at the Trump campaign's comportment, saying it was going to be up the EU to defend human rights, since "one side" in the US electoral race hadn't paid much attention to such concerns.

Meanwhile, British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, perhaps predictably given his own country's position, urged everybody to just keep calm, saying there was a "lot to be positive about" with the election of "dealmaker" Trump.

"We should regard it as a moment of opportunity," Johnson said. "I think [his election] could be a good thing for Britain, but it could also be a good thing for Europe."

But some might query whether that is not perhaps mutually exclusive. 

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