AUKUS defence pact

What it means for France and the EU’s strategic autonomy

In a joint statement on the 16th of September 2021, US president Joe Biden, UK prime minister Boris Johnson and Australian prime minister Scott Morrison announced a new defence alliance between their respective countries: AUKUS. In this context, the aim of this blog is twofold. First, it will investigate why Australia chose to replace its €56 billion contract given to France in 2017 to build and deliver 12 diesel electric-powered submarines to Australia with a trilateral partnership with the US and UK. Second, this blog will consider the issue of France and the European Union’s strategic autonomy and military capabilities, given that AUKUS was widely viewed as an attempt to counter China’s increasingly assertive behaviour in the Indo-Pacific and towards Taiwan. This issue is of particular salience in light of the recent revelation that China allegedly launched a nuclear hypersonic missile in August.

Why did Australia change suppliers? In an ultimatum, the US trumps France

Let us first investigate the rationale behind Australia’s decision to replace its deal with France with one with the US and UK. First, Australia was dissatisfied with its deal with France. For example, there were significant cost overruns, with the initial €31 billion budget expected to be closer to €56 billion, excluding maintenance costs, which were estimated at €90.1 billion. At the same time, there were concerns about the project’s timeline from the start: delivery of the first new submarines was set for 2035 at the earliest, with the final delivery spanning into 2050. On top of that, a number of agreed-upon critical milestones were postponed. This was problematic because Australia’s fleet was scheduled to retire in 2026, and with China’s growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific, Australia could not afford a gap in its naval capability. For example, China’s construction of several bases in the South China Sea ran counter to President Xi’s pledge in 2015 not to militarise the Spratly Islands, and Beijing’s maritime claims across the South China Sea are widely regarded as violating international law. The Australian government’s plan to spend $6 billion to extend the lives of its submarines can be seen as an attempt to make up for the country’s naval disparity. Furthermore, the company in charge of supplying submarines to Australia had its system hacked, and the agreed-upon 90% input of Australian workers, which Australia deemed a critical part of the agreement because it supported local jobs, was reduced to 60% in 2020, thus increasing scepticism about the project.

Second, in light of all of these issues, only a better deal was needed for Australia to scrap its current one, which the UK and US offered. Their proposed submarines were better – they are nuclear-powered, don’t need to be refuelled, have a longer range and are harder to detect. Moreover, PM Morrison referred to the submarines as the “first major initiative of AUKUS,” with the term “first” being key because, unlike the France-Australia deal, AUKUS goes beyond simply providing submarines. It involves the sharing of military capacity, to improve the UK, US and Australia’s “edge in military capabilities and critical technologies”, as president Biden put it, which France did not offer. Putting aside the specifics of the agreement, one can make a broader observation about Australia’s motivations for choosing AUKUS: US security trumps anything France (and Europe) has to offer. Indeed, it supports the idea that only the US is capable of standing up to China to maintain a “free and open Indo-Pacific”.

France’s and the EU’s reaction: an indication of wider strategic issues

France reacted to AUKUS with outrage and very publicly. Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s foreign minister, denounced the pact and scheming that went on behind France’s back as a “stab in the back”. Indeed, two weeks before AUKUS was made public, Australian foreign and defence ministers met with their French counterparts and reaffirmed their commitment to purchasing French submarines. In a similar vein, the French Embassy to the US stated that the decision to “exclude” France “shows a lack of coherence that France can only note and regret”. The US went behind France’s back to rid it of its own strategic alliance. Accordingly, France made the unprecedented decision to temporarily recall its ambassadors in Australia and the US for consultation and cancelled a UK-French defence summit scheduled for the end of September.

France’s anger towards AUKUS is more than a reaction to feeling betrayed by an ally. First, France lost a contract that it described as the “deal of the century” in 2016. It was central to France’s Indo-Pacific strategy, with the region having geopolitical significance for France due to its 1.5 million citizens living there. Second, it illustrates that even after Brexit, the US still wants the UK as its key military ally. Third, relatedly, it seems that the US does not consider France its equal but as an extension of US foreign policy. Despite Morrison, Biden and Johnson recognising that “the future of the Indo-Pacific will impact all our futures”, France was excluded from AUKUS, and the US did not consult France on its withdrawal from Afghanistan either. The former occurrence could be partly attributed to Macron’s cautious approach to China, preferring to take a middle way position between America and China, which the US does not trust. But then this reinforces the notion that the US regards France as a follower and will brush it aside if France does not conform. Lastly, following from this, France cannot take the US’ exclusion in its stride and operate alone. Although France is at pains to extol its strategic autonomy and nuclear power, AUKUS demonstrates the limits of its powers because countries always opt for the US security guarantee.

The EU was also caught off guard by AUKUS, with its spokesmen admitting that the EU was “not informed” of the defence pact and that it would “analyse its repercussions”. European Commission president, Ursula Von der Leyen, characterised the US’ treatment of France as “unacceptable”. However, the Commission’s deputy spokesman stated that there would be “no immediate effect on the discussions and relations with Australia” regarding a potential free trade agreement, with another Commission spokesperson commenting that “the EU is not in the business of punishing anybody”. This marks a separation between France and the EU’s strategic interests and that other member states do not want to strain transatlantic ties. However, admittedly, the negotiations for the EU-Australia free trade argument were pushed back by a month to October, which can be seen as a symbolic gesture of solidarity with France, as well as a pause to consider how this will affect the EU, given that France has the EU’s most powerful military force, second only to Russia in Europe.

Where should France, and the EU, go from here: 2022, the “year of European defence”

To avoid a repeat of this scenario, France needs to reassess its foreign policy. The upcoming 2022 presidential campaign provides the forum to do so, and if Macron is to be re-elected, he must cater to his voters as his far-right rival Marine le Pen will likely highlight France’s public humiliation with AUKUS to emphasise the need for a change in leadership. First, France needs to reconsider its stance towards the US. As Macron recognised in a press conference post-AUKUS, “Europeans must rid themselves of their naiveté” and “demonstrate that they can defend themselves” because the US “focuses on its strategic interests above all else”. France may also reassess its role in NATO, with Macron already describing NATO as “brain dead” in 2019. However, France must remain realistic in its options. A Gaullist foreign policy in which France is an independent actor exerting significant global influence on its own is not feasible. AUKUS demonstrates that allies prefer the American security guarantee in the face of rising Chinese and Russian assertiveness. As a result, France should continue to form alliances and, more importantly, initiate these alliances. While France may want to punish the British for their involvement in AUKUS, and more broadly for leaving the EU, the UK is Europe’s only other strong military power after Russia and France, and so Franco-British defence cooperation is too valuable to jeopardise. Third, Germany must move past the scars of the 20th Century and match up its military capabilities with its economic presence.

Let us now consider where the EU fits into this. Part of France’s global strategy may involve building a European army. France’s ambition appears to be to carve a middle path between the US and China, which, as with trade, appears to be only possible by forging a centralised European defence policy that prevents individual nations from being intimidated. Already in 2018, Macron emphasised that Europe should establish a “true, European army,” an agenda that his predecessors had also raised. Even though many experts are sceptical of the project’s feasibility and benefits, discussions about it have resurfaced in the aftermath of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the announcement of AUKUS. Given France’s upcoming six-month presidency of the EU Council in January 2022, as well as the current shift in Germany’s political climate following Angela Merkel’s departure after 16 years, Macron is in a better position to push this agenda forward.

At the same time, this is clearly relevant to some EU officials’ pursuit of a more integrated EU, which entails greater cooperation in all areas, including defence, as well as the ability to defend oneself. In this context, the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, recently shared his wish to make 2022 “the year of European defence”. However, this initiative is not without its challenges. First, it is subject to external opposition from the US and the UK, with the US historically compromising Europe’s defence ambitions. Second, there is internal opposition within the EU itself. At the citizen level, it seems that EU citizens are unlikely to support this project either – as people may be willing to die for their country, but not for Europe in the absence of greater political integration and European identity. At the level of member states, there is significant opposition, particularly from Eastern European countries like Poland and the Baltic states, who believe that the US is a more reliable defence partner and who remember France’s original opposition to Eastern enlargement. They are opposed to decoupling defence from NATO (unlike France). But a European army will require Poland’s and the Baltics’ endorsement given that they represent a necessary part of Europe’s defence against Russia. One need only look at their geographical proximity to Russia. To persuade these countries and carve out a unified and substantive position between the US and China, France needs to serve as a basis for a truly European foreign and defence policy that also addresses issues that are not of French interest, such as Russia.

To conclude, AUKUS has brought many implications about France’s and Europe’s future direction to the surface. The French rightly believe that Europe is integral to their military potential and global prospects. However, given that this has been debated since the unsuccessful attempt to establish the European Defence Community in 1954, which was influenced by France, there is scepticism that Macron will be able to move it forward, even if elected for a second term, or that his successors will want to do so.

Photo credit: Screenshot from South China Morning Post

The author is an intern in the European Policy Centre – CEP.