Following the announcement of the so-called AUKUS security partnership between the U.S., Australia and the United Kingdom, France reacted as if it had been stung by a wasp.
The pact, which involves the United States sharing technology for nuclear-powered – unarmed – submarines with Australia, also meant that Australia would end its agreement with France – or rather the French group Naval, largely owned by the French state – valued at 90 billion dollars, for the purchase of 19 submarines.
As a means of compensation, according to one estimate, Australia will need to pay an estimated 400 million euros in damages, something which the think tank Australian Strategic Policy Institute considers to be low, all in all, with one of its researchers, Andrew Davies, commenting: “It may be a rare example of Australia having negotiated effectively.”
“A knife in the back”
France’s reaction in any case has been pretty wild, as it has even resorted to recalling its ambassadors from the U.S. and Australia, an unprecedented diplomatic act, even if it may be part of some political theatre to help French President Macron in the run-up to the 2022 presidential election. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (picture) spoke of “a knife in the back” and “unacceptable behaviour among allies and partners.”
Remarkably, the French ambassador to London was not being recalled, something which may have to do with the UK’s importance for European defense cooperation separate from NATO, a cause France has been championing for a long time. Nevertheless, Paris did cancel a joint defense summit with London, and the French Secretary of State for European Affairs, Clément Beaune, stated that “we need to rebuild confidence, we need to discuss together – we are not in this context at the moment.”
EU member states under pressure by France
France is now trying to get other European countries to join its retaliatory actions. Last night, Foreign Ministers expressed their solidarity with France, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, while however stressing this shouldn’t damage Trans-Atlantic ties.
Before that, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel already expressed backing for France. Nevertheless, “the silence from Berlin and Rome was striking”, according to the Paris correspondent of The Economist.
On France’s insistence, an EU-U.S. Summit on trade and technology scheduled for the end of this month was also postponed until next month. Despite the opposition by a number of EU member states, they conceded to this as a face-saving solution for France that is unlikely to derail talks with US too much at this stage.
To add insult to injury, it also emerged that Switzerland wasn’t going to buy French Rafale fighter planes after all, instead opting for the American F35. This was also followed by a message from the Elysée Palace to Switzerland that a planned summit with the Swiss President in November is now going to be “difficult“.
A double standard?
The French certainly have a point. The “Anglo-Saxons” do not seem to have played it all in a very fair way. Then, unfortunately, that’s how things are being done in the world of military procurement. Certainly France itself is often not too shy to play that game, some have remarked, singling out Foreign Minister Le Drian himself, once dubbed “France’s [arms] salesman” by France24 TV.
Jakub Janda of the European Values Center for Security Policy in Prague has stressed this should not mean it would now be time for a European defense or anything similar:
“If France keeps pushing for “European strategic autonomy” as a tool how to distance Europe from US, Paris will find out that it lost the remaining pieces of trust of Central and Eastern Europe. In this region, we depend on US military to defend us from Russia, not the French one.”
Janda also casually quoted “Australian diplomats and national security officials”, “saying privately” that “French talk on how France supports Australia within its Indo Pacific strategy is bullsh*t. When Australia is pressured by China and asks for EU-Australia trade deal, Paris stops it to “protect” its farmers.”
That trade agreement now threatens to be completely finished by France.
Another representative of an Central and Eastern European think tank, Sławomir Dębski, of Poland’s PISM, had a go at the European Commission President’s support for France, in a reference to Germany’s deal with Russia for the “Nord Stream 2” gas pipeline bypassing Poland:
“I hope the EC President would speak out as forcefully in case one EU member state decided to collude with a non-EU state to subvert EUs energy security. But that’s probably asking too much, isn’t it Madam President?”
Similar criticism came from Russia and Asia expert Theresa Fallon:
“Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if von der Leyen had stood up for Lithuania after Beijing lashed out at it for leaving 17+1 [a Chinese consultation forum involving 17 Central and Eastern European countries] and for agreeing to open a Taiwan office?”
“Wouldn’t it have been nice if von der Leyen had expressed support for Lithuania after it faced criticism from Beijing for leaving the so-called 17+1 consultations [between China and Eastern European countries] and for opening an office in Taiwan?”
This kind of sentiments are being echoed by diplomats and are an indication how superficial the support for France is and how unrealistic a European defense separate from NATO, no matter what Eurofederalist daydreamers may want.
In general, there certainly is a lot of respect for France, which, as a nuclear power, possesses by far the strongest defense within the EU, but when the French go off on another around advocating a separate European defense, it’s often suggested they first should perhaps mind the interests of their partners a bit more.
This interview unintentionally offers evidence for why it would have been very difficult for Australia to include France in the deal. LeDrian basically trashes Australia’s strategic concept and belittles its understanding of its own interests. https://t.co/aK0m5fOHSd
— Tom Wright (@thomaswright08) September 20, 2021
In a pretty strong-worded editorial, German newspaper Handelsblatt states:
“Paris runs the risk of getting lost and not strengthening the EU but weakening it…such mind games make member states nervous. With such knee-jerk reactions, Paris only harms itself”
Switzerland’s Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) is taking even less prisoners, carrying the headline: “An EU Army is a fantasy”, bluntly stating:
“Those that recognize that a European Army suppose a degree of integration which most member states do not accept, should stick to the clear alternative: NATO.”
Apparently, it takes a newspaper from a neutral, non-NATO member state, to say it as it is.
It’s all very well summed up by Gideon Rachman, the Financial Times’ chief foreign commentator, who writes that “Rage in Paris and Beijing about the Aukus is much less significant than the approval in Tokyo, Delhi and across much of the Indo-Pacific”, adding:
“Antoine Bondaz, a security analyst (once dubbed a “crazed hyena” by the Chinese government) writes that for China, the pact between Washington, Canberra and London is “the realisation of a longstanding fear: the multilateralisation of American alliances in the region. Today, it’s Australia and the United Kingdom. Tomorrow, maybe Japan will join.”
The significance of this co-operation goes well beyond naval exercises and submarine sales. The three countries involved in Aukus will work together on strategic technologies, such as quantum computing and artificial intelligence. India and Japan also have much to contribute in those areas.”
Precisely. Rightly or wrongly, in the Indo-Pacific, China is seen as a dangerous geostrategic player. The U.S., the U.K. and Australia are already working closely with Canada and New Zealand within the framework of the Anglo-Saxon “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance. With the so-called “Quad,” the U.S. and Australia have formed a de facto alliance with India and Japan as well, and the idea is to deepen the relationship with European partners as well.
None of these new forms of cooperation do undermine NATO – unlike the idea of a “European army” which Eurocrats are seen to reheat every now and then. NATO’s core mission ultimately consists in the defense of European democracies by means of U.S. military support.
On the contrary, these new initiatives are a welcome addition on top of NATO, all directly related to China’s increased role. If China appears to be a friendly partner, there is now problem, given how everything is ultimately oriented on defense.
France may well be angry about the way it has been treated, but as the only serious military player in continental Europe, it has a responsibility to now look to the future. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has already suggested that France could still join AUKUS as it was “not exclusionary, not divisive”, and France selling its nuclear-powered submarines to India would apparently still be an option.
France’s Général de Gaulle once withdrew France from NATO’s military command structure, but in practice, France always remained a solid ally, strongly driven by realpolitik. Even now, the stakes are far too high for this to change.