French submarine snub tests EU defense cooperation avenues
WASHINGTON – France’s rage at its brutal sidelining from an Australian-British-American defense pact renews attention to the European Union’s nascent cooperation programs aimed at building bridges across the ‘Atlantic and the English Channel.
A player in several so-called PESCO programs, Paris has a right of veto when it comes to authorizing non-EU countries, such as the United States, to enter into the framework of increased collaboration in defense. In addition, the kerfuffle could affect planned cross-border programs, including a new European main battle tank.
There is no indication yet that the French authorities intend to block – actively or through protracted decisions – the type of defense cooperation that the Brussels architects envisioned for a post-Trump, post-Brexit world. But the depth of Paris’s declared disappointment could signal a reduced appetite for expanding EU-linked defense programs.
Announced on September 15, the Australian-British-American pact to transfer nuclear propulsion technology to Australia for a fleet of new submarines sank a $ 66 billion program for the French naval group to build conventionally powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy. The French complained that they only learned of the move hours before a public announcement by President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
French officials said their anger was less about the glaring value of a lost defense contract and more about how the allies had ambushed them in the face of a fait accompli.
The snub, according to the French, has “a lot to do with Europe,” said Pierre Morcos, visiting scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “It is very revealing of the way the Biden administration sees Europe.”
In addition, Morcos argued, the defense deal with Australia places a sort of uniquely military emphasis on relations with China that France has sought to thwart from its perch in Europe.
Much of it is shrouded in whether the affront concerns France or the European Union as a whole.
In an interview with CNN, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen appeared to claim that the bloc had an interest in the case. “One of our Member States has been treated in a way that is not acceptable,” she said. “I can understand the disappointment in Europe with the way the problem was handled. “
Governments of Central and Eastern Europe, which traditionally prioritize US cooperation in the face of the nearby Russian military inflection, would likely be reluctant to turn the saga into a potentially disruptive transatlantic crisis, analyst Christian Mölling said. principal in the German Council on Foreign Relations based in Berlin.
“They didn’t really jump to the rescue of Paris,” he told Defense News.
According to Mölling, the episode is unlikely to spark any sort of ring of EU wagons on defense issues that some officials have called for under the banner of “strategic autonomy”.
But two ongoing projects may warrant further scrutiny amid the fallout from the submarine affair. On the one hand, EU member states only this year approved the admission of the US Department of Defense in a project to improve the flow of military equipment across borders. The move marked the first time that an outside country was invited to the bloc’s Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) program, designed to synchronize the redundant development of the continent’s military capabilities.
France finally accepted, but with reservations.
In addition, the British applied for observer status in the Franco-German Main Ground Combat System, colloquially known as “Eurotank”. Unlike Berlin, Paris previously hesitated to meet British demand.
Morcos said it was too early to say whether the snub from the submarine could prompt France to reverse its position as PESCO or prevent London’s involvement in Eurotank. “The short-term goal is not to suspend cooperation, but to signal discontent,” he said.
Granted, cooperation on programs like these is not vital for either party, and the tank program in particular appears to be going nowhere at the moment anyway. But they represent points of contact that could support the ambition of the European Union to be a connected global player in defense.
One of the immediate questions now is how to roll back the diplomatic crisis after Paris took drastic measures, including the temporary recall of its ambassadors from Australia and the United States, Mölling said.
After that, something good for Europe could still come out, he argued. For example, a late consolidation of the continent’s shipbuilding industry could be on the horizon once the dust settles, he added.
Sebastian Sprenger is Deputy Editor-in-Chief for Europe at Defense News, which reports on the state of the defense market in the region, as well as US-EU cooperation and multinational investments in defense and global security. . Previously, he was the editor of Defense News.