World News: How a Security Pact Between the U.S., U.K. and Australia Might Result in the Development of a Common E.U. Defense Strategy

When Ursula Von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission — the legislative body of the European Union — gave her speech at the E.U. ‘s State of the Union last week, not many were considering how important and contemporary her words would feel in just a few days. While making her points, in fact, Von der Leyen stressed the importance that founding and shaping a common defense policy would have on strengthening European cooperation and furthering the European project. This concept had been surrounding political talks in Europe for years and became even closer to being seriously discussed by the member states once the United Kingdom withdrew from the E.U. in 2016, and Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, establishing a more protectionist, and yet aggressive, foreign policy. The political instability brought by Trump’s election in 2016 showed the international community just how fragile the Trans-Atlantic relationship really was. Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential elections did not help, as this quick and unusual shift in administration proved once again the aforementioned point on political fragility as one of the motors of the European concept of a new common defense policy. But how exactly does this connect to a failed military contract between France and Australia? Let’s start from the beginning. 

The gala honoring the anniversary of the Battle of the Capes at the French ambassador’s abode in Washington D.C. was meant to mark the strong diplomatic relations between the United States of America and the French Republic. The celebration recalls the events of 1781 when France provided military assistance to the European settlers fighting for their independence from the United Kingdom. However, what was meant to portray the union of two western democracies has now become the symbol of the harsh crisis affecting the Trans-Atlantic alliance for the past five years. This crisis stems from the difference in strategies between the E.U. and the United States regarding China. 

On Sept. 15, 2021, the U.S., United Kingdom and Australia signed AUKUS — an acronym of the signing nations — a trilateral security pact that would increase American and British presence in the Indo-Pacific region and grant the U.S. and U.K. contracts for the construction of multiple nuclear-powered submarines replacing Australia’s older fleet. While this new alliance will provide the U.S. and U.K. with thousands of jobs and billions in revenues, it also meant the sudden cancellation of a $90 billion contract — as calculated by news portal Defense World — for the construction of 12 diesel-electric attack submarines over 10 to 20 years, struck by Australia with France in 2016. This contract was a political victory for French President Emmanuel Macron and was referred to as “the deal of the century.” 

What makes this episode even more complicated is the fact that France was never told about the canceled military contract and found out only the day it was announced to the public. French Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian, called it “A stab in the back.” While the United States has been trying to improve the situation by underlining the importance of France as an ally, this event has opened a window of opportunity for the beginning of serious talks on a common European defense policy and “European strategic autonomy,” as pointed out by High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Joseph Borrell. While it might not be pleasant to hear, Europe and the United States have developed divergent goals, and while a damaged Trans-Atlantic alliance is not beneficial to either bloc, it allows for more political freedom when it comes, for instance, to Europe’s strategic partnership with China. 

The lack of communication from the United States in both this instance and the military withdrawal from Afghanistan highlights the need for a more reliable, sustainable and trustworthy western alliance. If the Biden presidency truly wants to repair the diplomatic damages made by the previous administration, it must work toward avoiding unnecessary slip-ups. What’s really left to ask ourselves is: is this the time a European army will come to life?