Paris and Brussels reel from Australia’s defence deal

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US foreign policy updates

US president Joe Biden’s new strategic pact with Australia and the UK not only torpedoed a multibillion-dollar French deal to sell submarines to Canberra but also came as another brutal wake-up call for the EU and France about their waning influence in the post-cold war world.

The agreement announced on Wednesday has come at an intensely awkward moment for the EU, which on Thursday also formally announced its own Indo-Pacific strategy with particular focus on working with regional partners in the interest of security and defence.

As part of the new arms deal, Canberra will procure nuclear-powered submarines as the US and its allies confront an increasingly assertive China. The US, Australia and the UK are already part of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance that also includes Canada and New Zealand.

The decision by Australia to ditch France in favour of the US and UK follows America’s failure to consult its European allies on its Afghanistan withdrawal plan.

Events in Kabul, including a rush to evacuate Afghans who had helped the west, sparked a debate over the EU’s ability to project itself as a standalone defence power, and the failure of the US to keep its Nato allies informed about its military actions.

The submarine deal was announced just hours after Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, made defence a key part of her annual address to the bloc’s lawmakers. In her speech on Wednesday, von der Leyen stressed the need to focus on “joint partnership” and the “European defence ecosystem”, including support for EU defence manufacturers.

In Brussels, the fallout from the submarine deal overshadowed the announcement by Josep Borrell, head of the bloc’s diplomatic and security arm, of its new strategy to project more power in the Indo-Pacific.

“I was not aware . . . we were not involved,” Borrell said of the US-UK-Australia partnership. “And I assume an agreement of such a nature was not brought together overnight.”

He insisted it would not weaken the EU’s relationship with Australia, but made it clear that Europe needed to work harder on building up its own autonomous defence capabilities.

“I understand how disappointed the French government will be,” he added. “We Europeans must look at the autonomy we must strive to have . . . it’s one way of waking up Europeans and saying ‘look you need to take the initiative’.”

A major part of the new EU strategy pledged “enhanced naval deployments by EU member states to help protect the sea lines of communication and freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific while boosting Indo-Pacific partners’ capacity to ensure maritime security”.

A senior EU member state official told the Financial Times that the furore was emblematic of Brussels’ lack of defence clout. “It came as a complete surprise for them and of course it’s embarrassing,” the official said, calling it “another example of how Europe might be rich but isn’t powerful”.

France, whose Naval Group two years ago signed an agreement with Australia for delivery of a A$50bn (US$37bn) submarine fleet, was particularly mortified by the surprise announcement given its close military co-operation with each of the three nations in the new pact and its own ambitions in the Indo-Pacific region.

Jean-Yves Le Drian, French foreign minister, described the decision as “really a stab in the back”.

“We built a relationship of trust with Australia and this trust was betrayed,” he told France Info radio.

Le Drian and Florence Parly, French defence minister, accused the US of excluding “a European ally and partner from a structuring partnership with Australia, at a time when we are facing unprecedented challenges in the Indo-Pacific region”.

France, with Pacific territories including New Caledonia and the Polynesian islands spread across a vast area of ocean, also made the point that it was “the only European nation present in the Indo-Pacific, with nearly 2m of its citizens and over 7,000 members of its armed forces”.

Le Drian and Parly said the new pact only “reinforces the need to raise loud and clear the issue of European strategic autonomy” — an issue repeatedly pushed by President Emmanuel Macron since he was elected in 2017.

François Heisbourg, special adviser to the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique think-tank, said the paradox was that France’s longstanding strategic dialogue with Australia was in fact “an excellent example of what the French mean by strategic autonomy”.

The danger now was that France, despite assurances from Biden and the UK about the continued importance of France as an ally, would angrily overreact to a deal that makes the Five Eyes group look even more like an exclusive Anglosphere strategic partnership.

“This will feed the Brexit narrative,” said Heisbourg.

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