(CNSNews.com) – The newly announced Australia-U.K.-U.S. (AUKUS) security partnership is attracting predictable condemnation from China but the initiative also provoked the European Union, where faith in the Biden administration has already been shaken over the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal.
France is particularly peeved that the U.S. and Britain will now help Australia to develop a nuclear-powered submarine capability, at the cost of a now-discarded earlier agreement for France to build 12 conventionally-powered subs for Australia, a contract worth some $36 billion.
“The American decision, which leads to the exclusion of a European ally and partner like France from a crucial partnership with Australia at a time when we are facing unprecedented challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, be it over our values or respect for a multilateralism based on the rule of law, signals a lack of consistency which France can only notice and regret,” the French foreign and armed forces ministers said in a joint statement.
“This unilateral, sudden and unforeseeable decision very much recalls what Mr. Trump would do,” Foreign Minister Jean Yves Le Drian told France Info radio.
But the criticism was not limited to the French, with senior E.U. officials clearly blindsided by the announcement – which came just hours before the bloc was due to unveil its own new Indo-Pacific strategy.
At a pre-scheduled press briefing in Brussels to discuss that strategy, E.U. foreign policy chief Josep Borrell acknowledged that the bloc had not been informed of the AUKUS plans in advance.
“This [AUKUS] alliance, we’ve only just been made aware of it and weren’t even consulted,” he said through an interpreter. “I certainly, as the high representative for security policy of the European Union, I was not aware.”
Borrell said that an agreement of that nature would not have been put together “overnight” but would have been worked on for some time.
“Yet we weren’t involved, we weren’t part and parcel of this.”
He said the incident provided yet another opportunity for the E.U. to “reflect on the need to raise the issue of European strategic autonomy.”
A reporter invited Borrell to comment on the state of E.U.-U.S. relations in the Biden era.
“After the election of President Biden the hopes were very high in Europe, but I think the communication hasn’t been really great concerning the retreat from Afghanistan and just now about this very important strategic alliance,” she suggested.
“I don’t think it is the right moment to get into an overall evaluation of the relationship between the E.U. and the U.S.,” Borrell replied bluntly. “I’m here to present a strategy with Indo-Pacific countries, and I don’t think the United States constitutes a part of the Indo-Pacific.”
Despite Borrell’s evident irritation at the turn of events, at a later point during the briefing he played down suggestions of a severe disagreement, advising a reporter not to over “dramatize” the situation.
“We regret not having been informed, not having been part of these talks,” he said. “[But] don’t put into question our relationship with the United States, that has been improving a lot with the new administration.”
‘America is back’
Secretary of State Antony Blinken stressed on Thursday the U.S. was committed to working with E.U. partners to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific, and said France had been notified beforehand about the AUKUS
“We’ve been in touch with French counterparts in the last 24-48 hours to discuss AUKUS, including before the announcement,” he told reporters at the State Department.
“We welcome European countries playing an important role in the Indo-Pacific,” he said. “We look forward to continued close cooperation with NATO, with the European Union, and others in this endeavor.”
When running for the White House Biden touted his strong foreign policy credentials, frequently drawing attention to experience and his broad engagement with world leaders – both as vice president in the Obama administration and during his 36-year Senate career, when he served twice as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
During the campaign he also repeatedly criticized President Trump over policies that strained relationships with E.U. and NATO allies. “America is back” was the slogan accompanying his first engagements in Europe in June, when he took part in back-to-back G7, NATO and E.U. summits.
When Biden arrived in Brussels for the U.S.-E.U. summit that month, European Council president Charles Michel welcomed him effusively.
“Mr. President, dear Joe, we are so pleased to welcome you in Brussels,” he said. “You are back in Brussels, and America is back on the global scene. It’s great news. It’s great news for our alliance. It’s also great news for the world.”
“We are reasserting the fact that it’s overwhelmingly in the interest of the United States of America to have a great relationship with NATO and with the E.U.,” Biden said in response. “I have a very different view than my predecessor did.”
On Thursday, Michel’s reaction to the surprise news of the AUKUS initiative was diplomatic, but pointed to the need for the E.U. to focus on its own common security – an issue that taken on new prominence since the tumultuous end to the U.S. and NATO mission in Afghanistan.
“The AUKUS security partnership further demonstrates the need for a common E.U. approach in a region of strategic interest,” Michel tweeted on Thursday.
He also commented on the Afghanistan situation.
“What happened in Afghanistan must be an eye-opener,” he said during a press briefing with the prime minister of Luxembourg. “It should lead us [the E.U.] to strengthen our geopolitical capacity, our geostrategic capacity, and to cooperate closer together in the field of defense.”