European Union leaders failed to overcome divisions over whether to develop an independent defence force despite anger at the chaotic withdrawal of Western forces from Afghanistan and new impetus from France after it was excluded from a US geostrategic pact.
Leaders meeting over dinner in Slovenia on Tuesday split into classic divisions of eastern states fearful of Russia and wanting to strengthen Europe within NATO and those led by Germany, Italy, Spain and France that want a more robust EU capability, two diplomats briefed on the meeting told Reuters.
Before the closed-door dinner in Brdo Castle outside the capital Ljubljana, French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters that the 27-nation bloc must do more to manage crises on its borders and to be responsible for its own security.
The EU leaders will be joined by the six Balkan leaders of Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia, North Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania on Wednesday, part of the bloc's decades-long strategy to create a "ring of friends" from southeastern Europe to North Africa.
"We Europeans need to be clear with ourselves. What matters to us in our security, on our borders, our independence?" said Macron, who had questioned the reliability of US protection of Europe before last month's dispute over an Indo-Pacific pact.
The transatlantic row was triggered last month by the United States' negotiation in secret of a military accord, known as AUKUS, with Australia and Britain to counter China, excluding France. Macron said he would meet US President Joe Biden at the Group of 20 meeting in Rome on Oct. 30-31.
Proponents of a stronger EU defence say the warnings have been many: Washington's "pivot to Asia"; Britain's departure from the bloc; former US President Donald Trump's "America First" that undermined EU priorities; failing states on Europe's frontiers and a more aggressive Russia.
But despite progress on building a common defence fund to develop weapons together, the EU has yet to deploy its battalion-sized battlegroups in a crisis.
"The leaders debate was between whether, in terms of force, we need to choose between our economic or military strength," said a senior EU official, referring to the EU's role as the world's biggest aid donor and trading bloc.