EU sides with France in the U.S, Australia spat 

September 22, 2021 - 17:57

TEHRAN - Top EU officials have rallied behind France in criticizing the United States for negotiating a security pact in secret with Australia and Britain that cost Paris a lucrative submarine deal as diplomatic tensions escalate over the issue.

France says it was assessing all options in response to Australia's scrapping of a $40 billion submarine contract last week in favor of a new deal with the U.S. and UK. 

The decision enraged France, and earlier in New York, the French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian accused U.S. President Joe Biden's administration of continuing his predecessor Donald Trump's trends of "unilateralism, unpredictability, brutality and not respecting your partner."

European Council President Charles Michel, speaking in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly gathering, stressed that he found the move by Australia, Britain, and the United States difficult to understand. 

"Why? 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". 

He also questioned that "If China was a main focus for Washington, then it was very strange for the United States to team up with Australia and Britain" he described the new agreement, dubbed AUKUS, a move that weakened the transatlantic alliance.

Top officials from the United States and European Union had been due to meet in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, later for the inaugural meeting of the newly established U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council. Still, Michel says some EU members have been pushing for this to be postponed.

French European affairs minister Clement Beaune described relations with Australia now as "very difficult."The EU commissioner for internal markets told American media that "something is broken between our relations in Europe and the U.S." before adding there was a "growing feeling" in Europe over the past few weeks and there had been a "lack of trust and confidence between allies."

Speaking after a closed-door meeting on the sidelines of the annual UN gathering of world leaders and top officials, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell says "Certainly, we were caught by surprise by this announcement." 

Borrell added that "more cooperation, more coordination, less fragmentation" was needed to achieve a stable and peaceful Indo-Pacific region. 

In a concrete sign of the EU's outrage, EU ambassadors postponed preparations for an inaugural trade and technology council on September 29 with the United States. This gathering was being publicized as a significant advance in the transatlantic alliance.

In defense of France, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has said, "one of our member states has been treated in a way that is not acceptable, so we need to know what happened and why."

Speaking from New York, where she is also attending the UN General Assembly, von der Leyen went on to say that the EU "will step up" to build its own defense capabilities.

Diplomats within the bloc say von der Leyen's EU executive has requested preliminary talks for the U.S. trade and technology council to be taken off this week's agenda. A spokesperson says the Commission was still determining whether the U.S. meeting should go ahead as planned.

Germany has sided with its biggest European ally. Berlin says Washington and Canberra had damaged trust between partners that would be difficult to rebuild. 

The German European affairs minister Michael Roth said the EU needed to overcome its differences and speak with one voice. Speaking to reporters before meeting his counterparts in Brussels, he said, "we all need to sit down at a table; lost trust has to be rebuilt - and this will obviously not be easy."

Lithuania's deputy European affairs minister echoed Germany and referred to a "transatlantic mistrust."

The dispute follows what NATO's European allies also said was Washington's failure to communicate and consult with the EU during the chaotic Western withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Australia says the United States' offer of access to U.S. nuclear technology to build nuclear-propelled submarines was too good to refuse. 

It will be only the second country after Britain in 1958 to be given such technology that will supposedly allow Canberra to help Washington prevent China from gaining military supremacy. 

Australia said it would cancel its order for submarines from France, which were conventional, diesel-electric powered, and instead turn to U.S. and British nuclear technology under a new security partnership. 

France says it could have provided the same nuclear technology if Australia had asked. French Foreign Minister Le Drian has said he wanted to know why his country, which has a strong military presence in the Indo-Pacific, was left completely in the dark. 

The spat has also put in doubt free-trade talks between the EU, the world's biggest trading bloc, and Australia.

In his speech to the UN General Assembly, U.S. President Biden made no direct reference to the controversial new security pact with Canberra and London. On the sidelines of the General Assembly, Biden said, "The United States has no closer or more reliable ally than Australia." Biden has yet to arrange a call with the French president, Emmanuel Macron, who has been left seething following the deal's announcement. 

To make matters worse, according to France’s defense ministry, Australian officials had written to their French counterparts to say they were "satisfied" with how a $90 billion submarine deal was progressing. 

The ministry says it received the communication on the same day the U.S, Australia, and the UK announced the deal was being canceled. 

A spokesman for the defense ministry also told U.S. media the French feel they have been cheated and blindsided by the announcement.

The spokesman added, "We received an official letter from the Australian ministry of defense, saying that they were satisfied with the advancement of the project and with the submarine's performance, which meant that we could launch the next phase of development of these submarines... we were very surprised by the announcement, which was not at all in line with the official letter we had received".

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he had tried to call French President Macron on the evening before the announcement. Still, France's Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Canberra only informed Paris one hour before Morrison joined a video link-up with British counterpart Boris Johnson and U.S. President Joe Biden to announce the new deal. 

Morrison has also come under attack back home from former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who accused the current PM of not following "basic diplomatic protocol by failing to inform the French government of his decision."

The former Australian Premier added, "such a failure is not acceptable between adversaries. It is even less so between allies. Besides, Morrison failed to understand the wider implications of his decision for foreign policy, and this is perhaps the most appalling of the whole story".

French European affairs minister Clement Beaune described relations with Australia now as "very difficult."

"We cannot act as if nothing happened. We need to look into all options," Beaune told reporters in Brussels.

EU foreign ministers, meeting in New York, also expressed solidarity with France.

Beaune warmly welcomed the EU support, stressing that this was a European matter, not just a French problem, and the bloc should be more assertive in defending its interests. However, it remains unclear what steps the European Union will take in response.


 

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