The announcement of the new AUKUS security partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States last month caused outrage in France and in the rest of the European Union. Not only did it imply a loss of the existing contract between Paris and Canberra for twelve conventional submarines and its replacement by the sale of nuclear-powered ones with American technology, it also meant that an ally and a friend was not informed until a couple of hours before the announcement. This came even more as a surprise in that the French contract would have provided Australia with additional defence capabilities already by 2030 as opposed to 2040 in the current alliance. Moreover, the decision taken by the United States to sell its strategic defence equipment and technology with the facilitating role of the United Kingdom creates a precedent with further consequences for potential proliferation.
This outrage led to the immediate response of France recalling its Ambassadors to the United States and to Australia but not to Britain. This was partly because France saw London’s role as having been primarily opportunistic in the deal and as a testimony of its post-Brexit so-called blueprint to play a greater role in the Indo-Pacific region. More specifically this incident means a return of the Anglosphere where Britain would wish to play a pivotal role, albeit a very minor one within AUKUS since all the technologies are American-based. This will undoubtedly have clear consequences for bilateral Franco-British relations in defence and security. On the one hand, it represents an abrupt breach of confidence of an old European partner and ally, and on the other it confirms the extent to which British foreign policy is now increasingly influenced by Washington. The enthusiasm of the 2010 Lancaster House Treaties, which sealed greater cooperation in defence, security and nuclear stockpile stewardship cooperation between Britain and France now seems far away and the behaviour of the United Kingdom in the whole AUKUS affair adds to the current distrust felt on the continent with regards to the recent British Brexit position.
Needless to say, this rift will also have an impact on the EU’s relationship with Britain. The EU stood side by side with Paris with further expectations of positive actions from London to restore trust. This seems particularly important since the United States have already signalled their willingness to make amends and work towards deepening and strengthening coordination with France. The meeting earlier this month between French President Emmanuel Macron and the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken was considered very productive and as opening new positive possibilities such as that of a EU-US dialogue on China, which might at some point be enlarged to the Indo-Pacific.
Moreover, the new EU Indo-Pacific strategy, released on 16 October, now gains in importance, as does the appointment on 1st September 2021 of a new EU special envoy for Indo-Pacific. Since the AUKUS announcement was made the day before, overshadowing the EU’s press release, it further confirmed the need for Europeans to think and act more strategically as a whole in this new centre of gravity for world affairs to protect European trade and interests. The Indo-Pacific creates 60% of global GDP, two-third of global growth and 30% of trade to the EU passes through the region, which is also home to a 1.65 million French population and seven thousand French military personnel. Above all, the new situation will spur a new approach towards partners such as India in the Indo-Pacific. France remains India’s first defence partner within the EU, in particular through the sale of the Rafale aircrafts over the past years. Although the United Kingdom was seen by India before Brexit as the gateway into the EU, its role and interest outside of the European Union have now significantly diminished for New Delhi. AUKUS in that sense opens up a window of opportunity for India to increase cooperation with France in the Indo-Pacific and on defence cooperation.
AUKUS also puts, above all, a new spotlight on the vital need for greater European unity in defence and security issues, an area which has for years been discussed at EU level, not least after the return of France into NATO in 2009. Efforts to foster a stronger ESDP and set up notably a permanent strategic planning structure for the EU to reinforce Europe’s ability to anticipate crises and plan operational needs were almost always hindered by Britain’s reluctance to support more cooperation. After Brexit, the forthcoming French presidency of the EU starting next January will no doubt seek to bolster European defence as a priority. It will be an interesting test of the EU’s capacity, freed from British restraint, now to engage in significant new steps towards further integration.