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Submarine Diplomacy: AUKUS, and the Reshuffling of Alliances

Image depicts UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson (left) with US President Joe Biden

On September 15th 2021, Australia, the UK and the US signed perhaps one of the most consequential defense pacts in recent history. The new AUKUS agreement represents not only a landmark in cooperation between these three nations, but it is also one of the most concrete steps taken against China’s increasing power in the Indo-Pacific. AUKUS will enable enhanced intelligence cooperation between the three nations, specifically enabling Australia to build nuclear-powered submarines 

Whilst the impacts upon China and the US’ increasingly belligerent relationship is perhaps the key factor of note in this agreement, one must also consider the knock-on effect this will have on alliances and relationships within Europe. Besides China, the most vociferous critics of the pact could be found in Europe. Most anger originated from France, as the signing of AUKUS has led to the cancellation of a French-Australian submarine pact to build conventionally powered submarines, worth around 66 billion euros. 

Whilst at face value EU anger at the US seems solely predicated on AUKUS, there has been emerging tension between these two allies for a number of years now. Thus, the European response to AUKUS must be viewed not only as a singular rebuttal to the pact itself but as a part of an emerging consensus within the EU to pursue ‘strategic autonomy’. The feasibility of this goal, though, seems distinctly limited.

European leaders have become increasingly suspicious of the US’s reliability as an ally over the past few years. The oft-spoken cliché that Trump’s volatility as Commander-in-Chief had caused fear among European leaders that they could no longer rely on consistent American support. Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran Deal, against the wishes of European countries, and his unclear positions on NATO, among other issues, had stirred this concern. America seemed to be pursuing unilateral action over the EU’s holy grail of multilateralism

Yet despite a brief honeymoon with the election of President Biden, who had declared that ‘America is back’, there appears to be broader divisions emerging between the EU and the US over key issues. For example, despite an agreement between Biden and Merkel, Some US lawmakers have stood steadfastly against Germany’s construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline with Russia. On EU-China relations, the EU continues to pursue a trade deal with China despite the wariness of the US.

The US’s hasty, poorly planned departure from Afghanistan drove perhaps the clearest wedge between EU-US relations. Many EU nations had lost servicemembers and committed significant resources to supporting security in Afghanistan. Moreover, it is the EU, not the US, who will bear more significant consequences from the withdrawal. The European refugee crisis, culminating in 2015 when over 1.3 million people came to Europe requesting asylum, represented one of the EU’s greatest political challenges. EU officials may fear another refugee influx if security and stability is lost again in Afghanistan. Moreover, the ever-restrained Merkel described the fall of the coalition supported government in Afghanistan as ‘bitter events’, and Norbert Rottgen, chair of the German Parliament’s foreign relations committee and Biden supporter, stated that ‘the early withdrawal was a serious and far-reaching miscalculation’.

Thus, AUKUS must not be viewed in isolation, but as an escalation of tension between the US and EU. Indeed, after the announcement of AUKUS, the Deputy Head of the European Commission, Marcos Sefcovic, stated, ‘after Kabul, after AUKUS, this was, I would say the natural conclusion that we need to focus more on the strategic autonomy’. Sefcovic seems to confirm the sentiment that EU concerns are now concrete and not simply knee-jerk reactions to AUKUS.

The route now for the EU in its relations with the US seems challenging, and few viable options seem clear. As referenced, ‘strategic autonomy’ is the course of action many EU leaders are now drawn to, chief among those being French President Emmanuel Macron. 

Macron’s desire ‘to build a much stronger Europe’ is unsurprising; drawing on a Gaullist tradition which emphasises the importance of France acting as an important global power, Macron would surely relish leading a bloc like the EU instead of being beholden to the US. The recent events in Kabul and the AUKUS agreement may cause European leaders to coalesce around Macron and force action through on strategic autonomy. Indeed, one could perhaps see the formation of EU wide-military cooperation, akin to an EU army, or at the very least more focused intelligence and technology-based cooperation between militaries.

Yet, the EU’s record makes such a shift unlikely. Moving a behemoth like the EU to important changes is rare and occurs at a glacial pace. ‘Strategic autonomy’ is no new concept; EU leaders have talked of such a notion for well over a decade. Indeed, in 2007, the EU attempted to create a 1,500-strong rapid reaction force, only for the force never to come into being because of disputes between member nations. If a task force of 1,500 is too challenging for the EU to create, one can only imagine the chaos forming an EU-wide defense policy and organization would bring. Indeed, in gambling to form a new EU strategic alliance on defense, member nations would risk undermining NATO, an organization so vital to many of their defenses during the Cold War. Member nations may be unwilling to take such a risk, despite what differences exist between them and the US.  Despite its faults, NATO still plays an important role in regional security, especially as Russia’s activities in the Ukraine have displayed its ability to reach beyond its borders.

Thus, AUKUS serves not only as a rude awakening to France but to the EU as a whole. The US is still a vital ally, and areas of cooperation between the two allies are vast. But the EU cannot expect to be wholly dependent on the US. Yet just as the EU-US alliance appears to falter, the alternative of EU ‘strategic autonomy’ seems an unlikely and unrealistic prospect, at least in the short-term. If EU member nations’ anger over recent US actions is as heated as their rhetoric is, then the EU must face up to its own structural flaws and avoid past failures in order achieve its desired strategic independence.