Strengthening EU-Australia Cooperation Is More Important Than Ever

, par Kareem Salem

Strengthening EU-Australia Cooperation Is More Important Than Ever
French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian speaks with Australian Foreign Minister Marise Paine during a working dinner in February 2019. / Credit : Frederic De la Mure MEAE

The European Union has long been an important bilateral trading partner for Australia. Bilateral relations have historically focused on material factors, particularly commercial interests. As a bloc, the European Union is Australia’s second largest bilateral trading partner, with bilateral trade in goods and services worth $99.6 billion between 2016 and 2017. Over the past decade, cooperation has further expanded to cover foreign policy, development cooperation, research and education, and joint programs in multilateral and regional fora.

The coronavirus pandemic has further highlighted the need for both like-minded partners to work together to uphold liberal values and norms. Indeed, the global health crisis has spurred authoritarian powers to assert their geopolitical interests at a time when the West is grappling with the pandemic. Given the uncertainty of the geopolitical environment, it is worth analysing in more detail why Australia and the EU should be more receptive to the dynamics of existing illiberal powers.

China’s growing assertiveness

Both the EU and Australia have been confronted by China’s aggressive diplomacy during the midst of the current global health crisis. In the first wave of the pandemic, China’s sought to divide Europeans by, among other things, publishing disparaging reports on Chinese embassy websites about how Western-style democracy was handling the pandemic, thus underlining Europe’s vulnerability in its bilateral relations with China. Australia also felt the force of Beijing’s aggression especially after it called for an independent inquiry into the COVID-19 outbreak. Canberra’s push for answers has considerably strained relations with its largest trading partner, resulting in Beijing imposing significant trade restrictions on Australia’s export industries.

Clearly, both allies are feeling the full force of China’s assertive and confrontational diplomatic campaigns. Australia and the EU need to engage jointly in coordinating a policy of action that will counterbalance China’s hostile geostrategic campaign.

Russian and Turkish expansionism

The ongoing coronavirus crisis has also provided an opportunity for Turkey and Russia to advance their geopolitical objectives. Indeed, both President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and President Vladimir Putin have notably sought to increase their military footprint in the Middle East beyond Syria, especially in Libya.

Both Moscow and Ankara have actively supported opposing parties in the Libyan conflict. The former has provided military and logistical support (through a private contractor linked to the Kremlin) to the commander of the Libyan national army based in Tobruk, Khalifa Haftar. Meanwhile, the latter has supplied arms and Syrian mercenaries to the Government of National Accord, led by Fayez al-Saraj.

For liberal democracies, the increasingly prominent roles of both authoritarian powers in this conflict should be a source of concern. Although rival Libyan forces have recently succeeded in negotiating a permanent ceasefire, it remains unclear whether either Turkey or Russia will withdraw their mercenaries. This is because Libya is of great geostrategic significance to both Ankara and Moscow. For the Russians, having access to Libya implies that President Putin will be able to access the southern flank of the EU and NATO. For Turkey, the control of the Libyan Mediterranean coast will give President Erdogan an important leverage against the EU regarding the control of refugee flows. Already, earlier this year, the Turkish leader threatened to let millions of refugees pass the Greek border in response to Europe’s reluctance to support Turkey’s role in the conflict in Syria.

But Libya is not the only region where Moscow and Ankara are in competition. Both powers have been active in the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave within Azerbaijan, internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but controlled by ethnic Armenian separatists. Turkey has been the most militarily proactive so far, challenging Moscow’s regional hegemony in its post-Soviet space, where President Putin enjoys good relations with Yerevan and Baku. For Russia, a peaceful resolution of the conflict is of paramount importance due to the strategic location of the two countries, which lie along an important energy corridor. For this reason the Kremlin has so far sought to pursue diplomacy to ease existing tensions between the two sides.

Despite negotiating two ceasefires, tensions have again further derailed talks, with both sides renewing fierce fighting. Lasting peace is further impeded by the fact that Turkey has reportedly sent several hundred Syrian fighters to support the Baku government, where it has close ethnic, cultural, and religious ties. This has the potential to further undermine regional security and prolong the conflict.

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is not the only area in which the EU has struggled to assert its influence and promote liberal norms. The EU has struggled to develop a coherent policy in the face of recent tensions in Belarus. The country, often referred to as Europe’s last dictatorship, strategically wedged between Russia and the EU, has succumbed to a deep political crisis following the rigged election victory of President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for nearly three decades. Since then, Lukashenko’s regime has been tested by an extraordinary wave of protests and workers’ strikes that has swept across the country.

On August 19, the European Council threatened to sanction the Belarusian regime if it continued its repression. However, the bloc has long found it difficult to reach a unanimous agreement on the crisis, given Cyprus’s opposition to sanctions – the Cypriot government believed that the EU should prioritise fending off Turkey’s exploration efforts in resource-rich Cypriot waters.

This has consequently prolonged the EU’s efforts to exert influence on the ongoing crisis. Sanctions were only agreed in early October, allowing the Kremlin to mobilise support for the vulnerable regime in Minsk. Indeed, Russian National Guard forces have provided the Belarusian KGB security teams with equipment and personnel to suppress the protest movement. President Putin even organised joint military exercises between the Belarusian and Russian military forces to deter the West from interfering in the crisis.

With the liberal order and international peace and security clearly threatened by Russia and Turkey’s geostrategic aspirations, Canberra cannot afford to remain on the sidelines of such important international issues. Russia’s increasing offensive cyber capabilities pose an immediate threat to Australian industry and critical infrastructure. Equally, Russia has moderated its stance on the South China Sea since 2016, towards a position more in harmony with Beijing’s interests and behaviour, which threaten not only littoral states, but also the liberal principle of freedom of the seas. Likewise, Turkey’s deployment of extremist fighters in Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh and warnings of new attacks on Syrian Kurds in northeastern Syria threaten the resurgence of a new caliphate, which threatens Australia and the West’s security interests.

Given the current polarisation of American politics, which will likely extend beyond November 3, it is even more important for Australia and the EU to strengthen relations to confront the illiberal leaders of Turkey and Russia. Establishing a series of working groups between Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne and the Head of the EU Delegation in Canberra, coupled with greater dialogue at the executive level between Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, would be a step in the right direction.

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