It is hard to overstate the importance of the so-called Aukus alliance between the US, the UK and Australia — and the implicit geopolitical disaster for the EU. The alliance is the culmination of multiple European failures: naivety at the highest level of the EU about US foreign policy; Brussels’s political misjudgements of Joe Biden and his China strategy; compulsive obsession with Donald Trump; and the attempt to corner Theresa May during the Brexit talks. If you treat the UK as a strategic adversary, don’t be surprised when the UK exploits the areas where it enjoys a competitive advantage.
The EU has outmanoeuvred itself through lazy group-think. While German political parties are still discussing the pros and cons of Nato, the Biden administration is moving beyond Nato towards a multipolar defence strategy. Nato remains a pillar but it is now supplemented by informal Indo-Pacific alliances. One of them is the quad: the US, Japan, India and Australia. Five Eyes is an informal intelligence alliance between the US, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand. Aukus is a nuclear submarine pact between the US, the UK and Australia. This is the variable geometry of the new international order — whereas the monolithic EU is stuck with its 27 veto-wielding members in the foreign affairs council.
The UK’s investment in modern defence technologies (and some of their civilian offsprings) are of a different order to other European states. It is natural that the US turns to the UK for this specific project aimed at containing the influence of China.
Rory Metcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University, writes in the New Statesman that the deal was struck on the sideline of the Cornwall G7 summit in June. Australia was seeking greater protection. What persuaded the Australians to drop the French contract was the willingness by the US and the UK to share their nuclear technology. Metcalf concluded that the UK had become part of something momentous in the Indo-Pacific.
The Aukus alliance brings risks for the UK too. The main one is not so much the ire of the EU but the possibility of being drawn into a future war in the Indo-Pacific. Theresa May, now a backbench MP, yesterday raised the possibility of a war in Taiwan. But right now this alliance constitutes another post-Brexit triumph for Boris Johnson after the quick deployment of vaccines.
So where does this leave Europe? At this point, there are three broad options for the EU. The first option is to continue to muddle through without direction, accompanied by some ineffective grand-standing schemes like a special reaction force. This is the PR-based version of European integration. It would work well with the media but wouldn’t solve the problem. Second, move towards strategic autonomy from the US, developing the freedom to strike a distinct relationship with China based on strategic interests. This presupposes a discussion of what the strategic interests are. In a second step, the EU would need to create a legal and political framework in which these strategic interests to be enforced, a monumental task. Third, reinforce the strategic alliance with the US.
The option of strategic autonomy seems the most desirable one — but it requires a total reboot of the EU’s constitutional order. This is not a policy shift or another PR exercise. The issue goes beyond qualified majority voting in the foreign affairs council. The reason Trump and Biden did what they did is that they campaigned for their policies and got elected. The EU is built for a customs union and a single market. It is only half-built for a monetary union. It is not at all build for a strategic defence union.
Real strategic autonomy requires treaty change: the creation of a federal union in which foreign policy and security constitutes a delineated area of EU competence. It would need to be complemented by a fiscal union to tax and raise debt. It would require constitutional change in some member states, like Germany for example. The adult version of strategic autonomy is a very serious undertaking. The discussions that have been taking place on this subject in European capitals are not in that category.
Aligning with the US is not a good option since Washington is clearly pushing its own unilateral interests. This means that the default option is to continued muddling through and pretending that some symbolic military co-operation — like joint headquarters or a small fast-reaction force — constitute something real. In the meantime, member states will pursue their own national trade and investment policies with the likes of Russia and China — the EU’s role will continue to be relegated to setting some minimum legal protection under current EU treaties. The EU did not manage to dissuade Germany from the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, but the European Court of Justice did manage to enforce rules about access and fair competition within the German-Russian deal. That’s better than nothing, but the EU foregoes an opportunity to pursue its geostrategic interests.
So what of France, the spurned member in an isolated EU? Paris is still shell-shocked. Backstabbed and betrayed is how Jean-Yves Le Drian, defence minister, described the impact. This new alliance has economic, strategic and political implications for France and Europe that are yet to be evaluated. France is one of the few nuclear powers present in the Indo-Pacific through its overseas territories. It is home to 1.5 million French citizens and 8,000 soldiers. Naturally, it has a strong strategic interest in the region.
The US has demonstrated that it can bully everyone around it and make its allies swallow nearly anything. It is understandable that Drian, who negotiated on behalf of France during the original Australian deal, must feel like it was a waste of time. But maybe not if he and Macron can find the right way to move forward.
What role will France play in the future? It is the only EU country with a serious stake in the Indo-Pacific and it is the only nuclear power in Europe apart from the UK. The biggest risk is falling back on historic narratives. Charles de Gaulle grew hostile to US and UK dominance in Nato. He pulled the French navy out of the joint command and prohibited Nato nuclear weapons from being stationed in France. This time may be different. France made it clear in its first statement in response to Aukus that co-operation with Australia and the US is to continue. Its longer-term response will need to be predicated on avoiding the temptation to burn bridges. The US, UK and Australia better come up with some ideas.
Domestically, this new geopolitical reality plays right into the election campaign for the French presidency. France also holds the next EU rotating presidency, with a common European defence strategy already on the agenda. Suddenly, the geopolitical role of France is back on the table. This is home turf for Macron, more so than for his opponents. The question is whether Macron can steer France through the motions of humiliation and build a fresh European narrative in this new world of geopolitical alliances.
This was first published in the EuroIntelligence morning briefing. For a trial subscription click here.
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