The surprise announcement of the so-called Aukus defence deal between the three involved the sudden cancellation by Australia of a massive submarine supply contract with France and was seen by Paris as a profound snub to co-operation in the Indo-Pacific region.
“Certainly we were caught by surprise by this announcement, which came together with the sudden cancellation of the submarine contract with France by the Australian government,” the EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell told reporters.
“The ministers discussed about it, considering it very disappointing. During the discussion the ministers expressed clear solidarity towards France.This announcement runs counter to calls for greater co-operation with the European Union in the Indo-Pacific.”
Mr Borrell described the the issue as “not a bilateral issue, but something that is affecting the European Union as a whole”, and said questions had been raised at the meeting about the impact on relations with the US.
“Certainly, there has been some considerations about how this decision can affect the transatlantic alliance, how it can affect the relationship with the US. But nothing concrete,” Mr Borrell said.
EU officials have hinted that an EU-US meeting to discuss data-sharing and joint standards on semiconductors and artificial intelligence may not go ahead next week.
In a meeting with Australian foreign minister Marise Payne, Mr Borrell raised concerns about a lack of prior consultation prior to the announcement of the Aukus deal, which was launched unexpectedly the evening before the EU unveiled its own Indo-Pacific strategy.
Mr Borrell “regretted that this alliance excluded European partners who have a strong presence in the Pacific, like is the case with France”, he told reporters. “The current challenges in the region call for more cooperation and coordination between likeminded partners.”
France is expected to push for the issue to be discussed at next month’s meeting of EU leaders in Brussels, as the union prepares a review of its defence strategy and to hold a summit on the issue chaired by President Emmanuel Macron next year.
French European affairs minister Clément Beaune said the development underlined the need for more European autonomy in defence matters, and that it had caused fresh tensions in the transatlantic relationship.
“I will not say it has broken ties, I will say it has created a difficult situation. We have to be lucid, we have to be aware, we have to be firm. Not as French but as Europeans, because it’s a matter of the way we work together as allies,” Mr Beaune told reporters as he arrived at a meeting of ministers in Brussels.
He described it as a “serious situation” that involved “duplicity”, and that negotiations with Australia on a trade deal with the EU could be affected.
“I think we should reassess this very quickly because it’s not a matter of being angry, it’s a matter of being lucid. It’s a matter of trust,” Mr Beaune said.
“In this particular project the key responsibility was on Australia for breaking a contract, and the US for probably putting pressure,” he added. The UK had chosen to be a “junior partner” in an alliance with the US, he added, but had so far rejected EU overtures for post-Brexit defence co-operation.
“I don’t think France is overreacting, I don’t think France should overreact but when a situation is worrying, is serious, I think it is also our responsibility to state it very clearly because we are allies.”
France has long called for more European autonomy on defence matters, but there is a longstanding rift on the issue with eastern European countries who are resistant to anything they feel could threaten the bond with the US.
Lithuania’s vice-minister for EU affairs Arnoldas Pranckevicius told reporters that the transatlantic alliance was his country’s top priority as he arrived at the meeting of ministers.
“The biggest asset and the biggest strength that we have is our unity, not only within the European Union but also in transatlantic relations. Therefore, my hope is that we will manage to overcome the transatlantic mistrust, because it is in th einterests of Europe and American and indeed in the interests of the world,” he said.
“For Lithuania, what is most important is to keep our transatlantic unity, because we believe this is our biggest strength and biggest value, especially vis a vis such countries as Russia and China, ” he added. “We will be the last standing in defence of transatlantic unity and in regaining the trust of the allies.”