AUKUS submarine fallout rumbles on as EU backs France

Canberra, London and Washington heavily criticised for what’s been described as the three nations’ ‘cack-handed approach’ to negotiating new alliance
French President Emmanuel Macron (2nd L) and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (3rd R) stand on the deck of HMAS Waller, a Collins-class submarine operated by the Royal Australian Navy, at Garden Island in Sydney on May 2, 2018. Photo by Ludovic Marin/pool/ABACAPRESS.COM

By Andreas Rogal

Andreas Rogal is a Brussels-based journalist and copy editor

21 Sep 2021

Despite efforts from to soothe the concerns - and, in the French case, the sheer anger of facing the loss of a submarine deal with Australia worth an estimated €35bn - over their new AUKUS defence pact for the Indo-Pacific, the fallout continues.

Having not immediately joined the French in their protests over the surprise announcement in great numbers last Thursday, EU leaders and legislators are now coming forward with comments which are broadly supportive of Paris’ stance.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in an interview on Monday: “One of our Member States has been treated in a way that is not acceptable. We want to know what happened and why. We have to clarify that before we can go on with business as usual.”

European Council President Charles Michel, who like von der Leyen is in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, told reporters there that he found the AUKUS move difficult to understand.

When asked why, he responded: “Because with the new 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."

This uncertainty, he added had already weakened the transatlantic alliance.

The UN General Assembly provided opportunities to meet and talk, and the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, who earlier had told reporters that "certainly, we were caught by surprise by this announcement", used them to speak to Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne on Monday.

“One of our Member States has been treated in a way that is not acceptable. We want to know what happened and why. We have to clarify that before we can go on with business as usual” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tspeaking to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in an interview on Monday

The subsequent press release by Borrell’s European External Action Service made it clear, in diplomatic language, that the issue is far from resolved. The High Representative, it reads “inquired about the lack of prior consultations and regretted that this partnership excludes European partners, who have a strong presence in the Pacific”.

The statement continues to implicitly criticise what has been described by more blunt commentators as the three nations’ “cack-handed approach” in negotiating the alliance: “The current challenges to stability in the region call for more cooperation and coordination among like-minded partners.”

The statement ends by reporting that the two parties had “agreed to remain in touch on EU-Australia relations, and to work towards overcoming the challenges created by recent events”.

One area of challenges will obviously be geopolitics and strategic partnerships, but another will concern trade. It is a truism that trust is essential for successful cooperation in both areas, but the reverse certainly poses a serious risk of losing out.

The three AUKUS nations will probably be most concerned about how the issue of a loss, or a breach of trust, has gained prominence throughout the affair so far.

European Commissioner for the Internal Market, Frenchman Thierry Breton told the Financial Times in an article published on Tuesday that there was a “growing feeling” in Europe that “something is broken” in transatlantic relations: “It’s true that we hear some voices in Europe saying that probably after what happened over the past two months, it may be a good idea to reassess everything we are doing, and our partnership.”

“It’s true that we hear some voices in Europe saying that probably after what happened over the past two months, it may be a good idea to reassess everything we are doing, and our partnership" European Commissioner for the Internal Market, Thierry Breton

Addressing the UK, French European Affairs Minister Clément Beaune told reporters on Tuesday, "We see it with the Brexit agreement, which is not being well implemented, we see it with AUKUS, where things were hidden from us - it's not the best context to have trust between two close allies."

The EU and Australia are, of course, in the middle of negotiating a Free Trade Agreement, and the chair of the European Parliament’s Committee on International Trade (INTA), German Social Democrat Bernd Lange, told Australian public broadcaster ABC on Tuesday with regards to the negotiations, “Now the trust is missing, it is a question of how serious and how reliable Australia is".

He added that "some [EU] members could ask for more safety nets and more safeguards in such an agreement, so I guess the dialogue and the negotiation will take more time.” While reporting that there was "no clear commitment to stop" negotiations, Lange, did explicitly rule out the possibility of a deal being struck before the French presidential election, in May 2022.

But other INTA Committee members were less keen to put the brakes on trade talks.

Christophe Hansen, the centre-right EPP Group’s coordinator on trade, and Daniel Caspary, leader of the German EPP delegation, published an identical Twitter thread on Monday commenting that:

“The announcement of #AUKUS w/o prior consultation on the day of #SOTEU, and one day before the EU published its Indo-Pacific strategy, is regretful. Despite our anger at this unfriendly act between friends, this should not scupper the EU-Australia FTA” arguing, inter alia, that “trade deals strengthen alliances by tightening bonds b/w allies. Driving a wedge between democratic allies only serves autocrats.”

“European reactions aside, #AUKUS was a diplomatic and thus tactical mistake by the US. Never piss off your allies unnecessarily” former MEP and former Finnish prime minister Alex Stubb

Referring to the inaugural meeting of the new EU-US Trade and Technology Council which is scheduled to start in Pittsburgh, PA on 29 September, but which some observers feel might now be postponed, Hansen added on Tuesday:

“Blindsiding EU on #AUKUS was a serious faux pas among allies. But cutting off one's nose to spite one's face by postponing #TTC & jeopardising wider progress in EU-US relations is not the way forward”.

On Tuesday afternoon, EU Council President Charles Michel published a picture of himself and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, commenting:

“With @ScottMorrisonMP. Frank, direct and lively exchange on #AUKUS. Clarity is needed between friends. Dialogue is key to build strong partnerships. We will stay in close contact.”

From his academic exile at the head of the School of Transitional Governance in Florence, former MEP and former Finnish prime-, finance-, and foreign minister Alex Stubb had tweeted over the weekend that “European reactions aside, #AUKUS was a diplomatic and thus tactical mistake by the US. Never piss off your allies unnecessarily.”

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