NATO seeks stage props; EU seeks trade protection

Jul 14, 2023
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, right, speaks with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese during a meeting of the North Atlantic Council with Partner Nations at a NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, Wednesday, July 12, 2023. NATO leaders prepared to provide Ukraine with more military assistance for fighting Russia but only vague assurances of future membership as the alliance's summit draws to a close on Wednesday. Image: AAP/AP/Pavel Golovkin

The convergence of the NATO Summit in Lithuania, and trade talks with the European Union in Brussels, saw Prime Minister Albanese and Trade Minister Don Farrell head to Europe. The former should not have gone, and the latter should be prepared to walk away without agreement.

Asia is also represented at the NATO meeting by Japan, South Korea and New Zealand. NATO, parading its 2022 Strategic Concept that identifies China as a concern, wants to add its weight to the competition and tension in Asia, and so sought suitable stage props to bolster its sense of importance.

Japan, stuck in a zero-sum game with China for influence and prosperity (This photo of Xi and Abe sums it up), welcomes NATO, and has offered to host a NATO liaison office, the first in Asia. South Korea wants NATO’s help dealing with North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Australia hopes it will “advance Australia’s security, economic and trade agenda”, and New Zealand is just pleased to imagine it is relevant.

With the passing this week of 500 days of war in Ukraine, and the outcome still far from certain, it is reasonable to think NATO should be fully occupied closer to home, rather than focused on Asia. After all, President Biden said the US was sending widely-banned cluster munitions to Ukraine because Ukraine was running out of ammunition. If that is so, it is damning of NATO and its ability to sustain even a limited conflict. It makes NATO’s ambitions to be relevant to deterring or combating China seem a misleading and even dangerous pretension.

NATO’s Vision is an important statement of principles, with perhaps none more so than ensuring countries’ “sovereignty and territorial integrity are respected”, and where “each country can choose their own path.” Hence NATO’s commitment to Ukraine, and the importance of its security guarantee to the Baltic and Scandinavian countries that are or will be members.

However, if these are important principles to NATO, and not just convenient rhetoric, it will give great comfort to Beijing, as not only is Taiwan and Mainland China one country, Beijing is recognised by all NATO member countries as the seat of China’s sovereignty. For the principles in NATO’s Vision to have any weight in defending Taiwan against Beijing, NATO member countries should recognise Taiwan as an independent country, something Taiwan is not even seeking.

But the awkwardness for NATO and its members does not end there. NATO’s Strategic Concept rails against authoritarian actors that “employ economic coercion” and “undermine multilateral norms and institutions.” These deeply held principles come from NATO member countries that brought the world the Opium Wars, and the murder of ten million Africans in Congo to produce the chocolate industry Belgium is famous for.

Many, although likely not China or Congo, might argue that those examples are too remote in time to be meaningful, but it is clear that the European Union uses economic coercion as a primary tool of statecraft. That is why Minister Farrell cut into his holidays to try to get a trade agreement outcome with Europe that does not make a complete mockery of the notion of free trade.

At the heart of the bilateral trade logjam is Europe’s determination not to open its pervasive, trade distorting protectionist policies on agriculture, and its commitment to imposing its arbitrary system of monopolising trade terms that have become generic and widely used around the world.

The most famous of these is Champagne, and it is argued that real Champagne can only come from the specific area designated as the Champagne region because of its special soil and environment. But even that claim was shown to be tenuous at best when the French increased the size of the Champagne region, not because its special qualities had miraculously spread, but because it could not keep up with international demand for its product.

Australia was bullied into giving up use of terms including Champagne and Port. Port itself is another dubious claim regarding the special quality of the area around Oporto in Portugal, as the origin of Port was the addition of brandy to poor quality Portuguese wine by English merchants. Now the Europeans want Australia to give the EU a monopoly on hundreds of more terms including Feta.

The Danes are not normally given to hyperbole, but they noted that the arguments to restrict the use of the word Feta to only Greek products because “the grass in Greece gave the cheese its particular taste were laughable. Feta is a generic product whose primary taste is the brine in which it is preserved.” And that is from an EU member.

It is not just that the EU seeks to impose an arbitrary system of trade protectionist measures on other countries, in doing so, it requires other countries to over-ride commercial protections in important business laws including trade mark and business names, both elements widely recognised in the multilateral system.

It may seem impolite to highlight the conflicts between NATO’s aspirations, capabilities and principles, and the trade protectionist and coercive nature of Europe in general, but these are the realities Australia must face.

NATO without the US is an organisation that is less than the sum of its parts, due to its fragmented decision making and competing national interests. Its self-declared charter makes no sense in relation to either China’s behaviour toward Taiwan, or economic coercion in general. And as the US is already deeply engaged in Asia, NATO has little to offer Asia other than the confusion of its mandate and its self-declared importance.

And in Brussels, the Europeans demanded Minister Farrell agree to accept more European trade protectionist measures in return for the promise of loosening some other existing trade protectionist measures.

From the perspective of Australia’s interests, the Prime Minister and Trade Minister may well have been better off staying at home.

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