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France wins EU backing in submarine row

Published on September 21, 2021

European allies rallied around France on Tuesday over the US and Australian decision to strip Paris of a submarine supply contract, as the dispute threatened to delay trade talks with Washington and Canberra.

German Europe Minister Michael Roth said France’s diplomatic crisis with the US was a “wake-up call for all of us” on the importance of uniting an often divided EU on foreign and security policy.

Europe broke its silence and backed a furious France, which has accused the United States, Australia and Britain of working behind its back to negotiate the AUKUS defence pact and replace Canberra’s multi-billion-dollar order of French submarines with a US contract.

The show of solidarity from Germany and the EU’s top officials was welcomed by France, which said the breakdown of trust with Washington strengthened the case for Europe to set its own strategic course.

France’s minister for European affairs Clement Beaune called the row “a European issue” not simply a French one, as he arrived at ministerial talks in Brussels, with the chaotic US pullout from Afghanistan in August also a source of irritation among EU members.

“I don’t think France is overreacting and I don’t think France should overreact. But when a situation… is serious, I think it’s also our responsibility to state it very clearly,” he said.

Top EU official Charles Michel said he had a “frank, direct and lively exchange on AUKUS” with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

EU internal market commissioner, Thierry Breton, warned there was a growing feeling “that something is broken” in Europe’s ties with Washington.

“So it is probably time to pause and reset our EU-US relationship,” he said in a speech in Washington.

The European Commission said it was considering whether the diplomatic storm would affect a gathering of a new EU-US Trade and Technology Council in Pittsburgh on September 29 to discuss ways to cooperate on trade and regulate big tech.

“The decision will be made before the 29th,” Breton told journalists.

– ‘Irritated’ France –

An EU diplomat said France had “floated” the idea of delaying the TTC meeting, though they face opposition from the Baltic republics, which border Russia and set great store in the NATO alliance.

EU ambassadors were expected to discuss the proposal at a meeting on Friday, with much hinging on a hotly anticipated phone call between French President Emmanuel Macron and Joe Biden set to take place in the coming days.

The European Commission, which handles trade policy for the EU’s 27 member states, already said on Monday it was looking into delaying negotiations with Australia on Canberra’s three-year bid to secure an EU trade deal.

“It is up to the head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, to decide,” said another EU diplomat, referring to the president of the commission, the EU executive.

Von der Leyen, a former German defence minister, on Monday said the way France had been treated was “unacceptable”, though she gave no indication on the fate of the trade talks.

Sweden’s EU minister Hans Dahlgre expressed reservations about giving too tough a response, saying he understood French irritation but wanted more detail on what had happened over the submarine deal.

“I don’t think we should restructure the EU’s trade policy because of this,” he said.

The creation of an EU-US tech council was agreed at a summit in June. Washington was expected to use it to seek deeper support from the Europeans on curbing the ambitions of emerging superpower China.