25th Oct 2021

French outrage over US security deal exposes EU frustrations

  • US president Joe Biden was welcomed in EU with relief after the Trump administration - but has since annoyed his European allies (Photo:
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French anger over a ditched submarine order by Australia has shed light on the growing frustration with the US for its repeated unilateral moves, sidestepping EU capitals.

EU foreign ministers on Monday (20 September) had been expected to discuss, on the margins, the implication of the new security deal between the US, UK, and Australia - which has also cast a shadow on the bloc's trade talks with Australia.

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The meeting took place on the sidelines of the UN general assembly in New York, and was led by EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell, an EU commission spokesman told reporters.

"Certainly, we were caught by surprise by this announcement," Borrell said afterward, while urging "more cooperation, more coordination, less fragmentation" between allies.

The EU Council president, Charles Michel, also spoke out at the UN meeting.

"With the new [US president] Joe Biden administration, America is back. This was the historic message sent by this new administration and now we have questions. What does it mean - America is back? Is America back in America or somewhere else? We don't know," Michel said.

Paris, which has been arguing for more European strategic sovereignty, was angered by the agreement which sees US and UK technology used to build nuclear-powered submarines for Australia to counter China's growing security threat.

Australia's decision to scrap a €56bn order with France for 12 diesel-fuelled submarines, has added fuel to that.

France recalled its ambassadors from Canberra and Washington.

"There is understanding for the French in the EU capitals, but the attachment of most EU capitals to the transatlantic relationship trumps the sympathetic feel for Paris," one EU diplomat said.

"We understand the French anger on submarines, but that is seen as a bilateral issue," the diplomat added, saying that on the other hand the US should recognise its needs Europe too, if it wants to counter China.

The dispute could now have implications for the EU-Australia trade talks, where the next round is planned for 12 October. However, EU diplomats could not confirm media reports that France had pushed for talks to be suspended.

"We are analysing the impact of the AUKUS [the US, UK, Australia deal] announcement, and what its impact would be on this schedule," a commission spokesperson said.

The EU is Australia's third-largest trading partner. Negotiations on a free trade agreement were launched in 2018, and 11 rounds of talks had been held so far.

The negotiations are conducted by the commission once a mandate for talks are given by the member states. The commission keeps the EU governments and the European Parliament informed about the talks throughout the process.

"We are still collecting information on this issue, […], we remain committed to cooperating with our partners on the international stage," one EU diplomat said.

German MEP Reinhard Bütikofer tweeted on Monday: "Just a timid reminder: France is not running the EU trade policy, and trade policy is a union competency. So let the dust settle and then think again. Of course we cannot act as if nothing had happened, but how the EU will react is not decided unilaterally by Paris."

EU ambassadors last week had a briefing by the French ambassador on Paris's concerns over the security deal.

Meanwhile, French president Emmanuel Macron will have a call with US president Joe Biden in the next few days.

Frustration with the US has been growing with the new administration after it has acted unilaterally on several issues: it had renewed a Covid-19 travel ban against European citizens, it withdrew its forces of Afghanistan without coordinating, and it has struck the AUKUS deal.

The US on Monday lifted its travel ban against EU citizens - in what seemed as an effort to alleviate the European annoyance.

The AUKUS agreement also exposes the divisions among EU countries on what 'strategic autonomy' means for Europe, with one group putting more emphasis on EU sovereignty, and others arguing that transatlantic ties should not be jeopardised.

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