The recent AUKUS pact between the US, UK and Australia, which provides the latter with the capability to build its own nuclear submarines, has not gone down well in some quarters of the EU. As part of the new agreement, Australia will no longer purchase diesel submarines from French state-owned firm Naval Group but acquire nuclear-powered ones in their place. Yet while many Remain observers present this as a snub to France, it is more straightforwardly the legacy of repeated failures of delivery by Naval Group.
Macron, naturally, is livid. Although UK media attention has been focused on the Afghanistan withdrawal, France’s progressive disengagement from West Africa with jihadists there undefeated has made France, like the US, look similarly weak in its former colonial backyard. Although the withdrawal is popular in France (and will please crowds ahead of elections next April), the failure to achieve French objectives threatens to make the president look impotent on the world stage.
The AUKUS snub compounds this problem – especially given the extensive coverage it has received in the French media, the size of the deal (now standing after cost increases at €56 billion), and the fact that the French state owns a 62% stake in Naval Group. Embarrassingly for a president who vaunts himself for his commercial competence, the deal was negotiated under his auspices as Minister of Economy and Industry in 2016. To add insult to injury, it is another vindication of Global Britain and Boris Johnson after the vaccine triumph. Macron has withdrawn French ambassadors from Australia and the USA in response.
Indeed, part of what stings from the French perspective is being shut out of future developments which the AKUS partnership will bring. Although not all the details of the alliance have been made public, AUKUS will certainly enhance data-sharing and boost encryption technology.
Will the project unite the EU against the Anglosphere?
Yet while France cries foul, and other European observers hint darkly that they may see the UK and the USA as ‘rivals’ as a result, the Australians had every right to refuse to take their contract any further. The project has been rife with issues, including cybersecurity failures, budget overruns, delays, and failure to deliver on a key contractual promise to manufacture 90% of the submarines in Australia. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the coverage on BBC 4’s Today Programme on Saturday morning did not cover these failures, preferring to dwell on the injury to France.
To assume that this will fundamentally alter French attitudes towards NATO and EU defence or that it will fundamentally alter other European countries’ perceptions of NATO’s value is also misleading. France has always pushed for a stronger common EU foreign policy arm which it can control, but AUKUS’s reaction affects other EU nations relatively little and does less to create any kind of common cause around which they can rally.
Indeed, it is hard for the UK or any other country to geopolitically ‘rival’ the EU when European defence policy is so incoherent. (To judge by this affair, it consists of little more than a corporatist desire to protect the profit margins of its favoured defence contractors.) Although France may wish to punish Australia and the US for this snub, it unlikely that other EU countries will be nearly as concerned.
We commented on the lack of common European foreign policy last week, and further evidence of it is not hard to find. As a scathing commentary in the European news aggregator Euractiv pointed out, Ursula Von Der Leyen’s State of the Union speech last Wednesday contained no reference to Russia, precious little to the threat posed by China, and no comment on Turkey.
This passivity may please commercial interests, but neither it nor French tantrums will bolster NATO and the West in the face of its global challengers. And for Europeans themselves this mercantilist outlook is more generally self-destructive. Pfizer, on whose vaccine the EU has fundamentally relied, had its approval delayed as French and German firms sought to acquire vaccine contracts for themselves. Small wonder – Brussels contains more double the number of lobbyists than Washington DC.