The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

24 Sep 2021

Role in the World

These (almost) back-to-back controversies of the fall of Kabul to the Taliban last month, and the emergence of the AUKUS arrangement, have had a profound impact on the foreign policy calculations of European states. But the latter, in particular, has major implications for EU security and defence as well.

The creation of the AUKUS security partnership between Australia, the UK and the US is part of the broader trend in American security posture that has been apparent since the Obama Administration. The US pivot to the Asia Pacific – now more frequently styled as a focus on the Indo-Pacific – has taken on an extra impetus under President Biden.

The creation of AUKUS would, however, have been no less significant even if it had not resulted in the very public diplomatic spat between France and the AUKUS partners, caused by the cancellation of Australia’s procurement of French submarines.

AUKUS, as an alliance founded on military-industrial cooperation to improve joint capabilities in areas such as cyber, artificial intelligence and quantum capabilities (as well as the cooperation to allow Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines), is predicated on the idea that integrated collective action is needed to maintain a technological edge over future adversaries.

The undeclared adversary for which AUKUS has been founded is China.

AUKUS shares similarities with elements of the EU’s own ambitions for strategic autonomy, in its concern with maintaining a European capacity in key industrial sectors and in cutting-edge dual-use technologies.

Furthermore, the EU’s approach includes a defence component that would allow for military action independent of the United States – an increased focus on this was given impetus by the Trump Administration’s cagey approach to European collective security through NATO.

This was heightened, more recently, by the US decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, and the attendant implications for European states (including the inability for the EU member states to act collectively to evacuate their own nationals and Afghan civilians from Kabul).

Following Brexit, France’s role in the future of EU defence has been strengthened, as the UK had previously provided weight to the group of EU member states which had adopted a more circumspect approach to developing collective defence capabilities. Since 2016 a raft of new EU defence initiatives, such as PESCO, CARD and the EDF have provided a framework for injecting more momentum into collective defence capabilities.

The current process of defining what kind of security and defence actor the EU wants to be will come to a head with the definition of a Strategic Compass intended for adoption in March 2022. Extra momentum behind its implementation is likely to come as France will hold the EU’s rotating Presidency for the first half of next year.

The aggrieved reactions to AUKUS, echoing the sentiments of the French government, from EU leaders – such as the President of the European Commission and the EU HR/VP for foreign and security policy – suggest support for even greater impetus for European strategic autonomy in Brussels.

The German government, to be elected this weekend, looks likely to be pressed hard by France to support greater ambition for EU defence. That other European governments which have avoided making comments on AUKUS may be indicative of a wait-and-see approach to the implications for EU security and defence, and it is notable that only a small number of EU member states have made public re-statements of the importance of the US to European security.

The coincidence of the EU’s launch of its own strategy for the Indo-Pacific with the news of the creation of AUKUS, demonstrated how the region has become a focus of European collective concern.

Meanwhile, the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy coming on the back of national German, Dutch, and indeed British, strategies illustrates that there is a belated catch-up with the US moves to rethink the response to a shifting locus of global military and economic power.

France’s position that it has been in the vanguard of responding to the new importance of the region because of its territories and citizens in the region is clearly ga(u)lled by the rediscovery of the Indo-Pacific by other states.

And, aside from the impacts on France’s armaments industry of the loss of the Australian submarine contract, it has significant grounds for feeling aggrieved at its treatment as a dispensable partner in a region in which it has a significant stake.

The diplomatic spat over AUKUS does nothing to ease existing Franco-British tensions created as a consequence of Brexit. French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian’s dismissal of Great Britain (‘… in this matter is a bit of a fifth wheel on the carriage’) provided a colourful example of insouciance on the importance of the UK within the AUKUS. But it also highlights that the bilateral military cooperation between the two countries has become stultified on both sides.

For the UK, AUKUS fits with the Indo-Pacific tilt and focus on growing the country’s science and technology power set out in the Integrated Review: London has ambitions for its foreign, security, defence and development policy, and looks to be trying to put muscle on the bones of Global Britain.

Oddly, though, central to the Integrated Review was also the position of the UK as a European power with global reach. If AUKUS (and the Afghanistan debacle) does spur the EU to do more collectively on defence and in turn, generates a perception by the US of diminished need for commitment to Europe, it will be an issue of UK concern.

The controversy around the creation of AUKUS, which is focused on Indo-Pacific security, has also served to highlight how intertwined the region has become to the debate on the future direction of European security.

By Professor Richard G. Whitman, Associate Fellow, Chatham House; University of Kent and former associate fellow at UK in a Changing Europe. 

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