The US has urged Britain to follow its example and try to repair its relations with Paris in the wake of the row over France’s loss of its submarine contract with Australia.
Australia pulled out of the $66bn (£48bn) contract for 12 diesel electric-powered submarines, signed in 2016, to opt instead for nuclear-powered submarines to be developed with America and the UK. The secretive and sudden cancellation of the contract has created a crisis of trust between Paris on the one hand and London, Canberra and Washington on the other.
But senior US diplomats including the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, spent two days in France and Brussels trying to repair relations after French leaders made clear they felt the trio of nations had gone behind their back to form the new alliance.
Blinken met the French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, in Paris on 5 October. The US’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, also met the French foreign policy adviser, Emmanuel Bonne. French president Emmanuel Macron is also due to hold a bilateral face-to-face meeting with Biden at the G20 in Rome.
US diplomats have been disappointed that the British prime minister has not made any parallel effort to patch up relations with Macron. There has been one explanatory phone call while Johnson expressed his frustration with French complaints over the loss of the contract, saying “donnez moi un break”.
One diplomat said: “We had hoped for a three-legged stool of Britain, Europe and the US, but we are having to run more of a hub and spoke operation in which we reach out separately to democracies in Europe, UK and Asia.” The diplomat expressed hope that the British would think more strategically about relations with Europe.
One senior US diplomat admitted in retrospect the handling of the Australian cancellation of the French contract was an unforced error, and at best there should have been a decent three-month interval before the announcement of the new security alliance between Australia, the UK and the US.
There were disagreements within the Biden administration about how to handle the affair once it was clear that Australia wanted to end the submarine contract, and adopt US nuclear-propelled submarines. Some argued that it was foolish to alienate the French since the interregnum created by the German elections meant that France was at the helm of European foreign policy. The Australians insisted on secrecy.
The French have now largely decided to capitalise on US political embarrassment to win concessions from Washington over a strengthened European defence pillar inside Nato, greater US cooperation in fighting terrorism in the Sahel, and a recognition of the legitimacy of the European Union’s role in the Indo-Pacific, which will be highlighted by a special conference convened by the French during its presidency of the EU in the first half of next year.
But there is no parallel rapprochement between the French and the Australians or the British. Le Drian, giving evidence to the French parliament, said the ball remained in Johnson’s court, adding that there had been a promise of proposals from the French, but none had been submitted.
He was even more scathing about Canberra, saying that it had taken “a leap into the unknown by choosing to resort to technology that Australians do not and will not master in the future. They thus place themselves entirely at the mercy of developments in American policy. I wish our Australian partner, who made the choice for reasons of security – justified by the escalation of tensions with China – to the detriment of sovereignty, does not discover later that it has sacrificed both.”
Le Drian also said it was a matter of concern that the British, who are organising the Glasgow Cop26 conference, have agreed to a trade deal with Australia without taking into account the Paris climate change agreement.
France’s defence minister, Florence Parly, has faced tough questioning about how the French intelligence services and defence industry could have misread the signals coming from Australia over the contract’s future, or had been given no warning by the Americans. She said no one could have envisaged Australia would be so willing to lose its sovereignty.
The aggrieved tone still emerging from France contrasts with remarks by the EU’s external affairs chief Josep Borrell who on Friday in Washington put the submarine issue in the past by insisting the controversy was over.