Why Anglo-French alliance still counts despite AUKUS nuclear deal – Patrick Mercer

WHILST the lights flicker and the motorways are jammed by climate protesters, our old friend France seems to have been having a hissy fit over submarines.

The submarine deal between Britain, America and Australia has angered the French.

Now, it doesn’t take too much guile to work out that there’s a French presidential election in the offing and a strident defence of her amour propre might be no bad thing when votes are tight.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

But there’s more to it than that and France’s petulance needs to be looked at carefully.

President Macron is piqued by the new nuclear deal between Britain, America and Australia.

The row rests on the fact that Australia has just bailed out of a £27bn contract to buy 12 conventional submarines from France and joined a new, strategic alliance with Britain and the US (AUKUS) which will involve her getting nuclear subs from America which are likely to be a development of the Royal Navy’s Astute Class boats. These vessels, though, are only a symptom of a growing threat.

China has rearmed and become increasingly aggressive with barely veiled threats of an invasion of Taiwan under the guise of ‘reunification’, the Hong Kong issue and an evermore bellicose approach.

Despite the fact that China is Australia’s biggest trading partner, she uses, as with other countries, trade sanctions to damage Canberra’s economy as well as cyber attacks and coercion in the shape of espionage.

And it was interesting to hear Victor Gao, of the Centre for China and Globalisation (who’s one of those smooth, ‘non-aligned’ mouthpieces of whom Beijing is so fond), saying that if Australia goes nuclear she will have sacrificed the ‘privilege’ of not being targeted by China.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is given a packet of the Australian snack, Tim Tams as he is greeted by his Australian counterpart, Scott Morrison in Washington DC,

This is underwritten by the fact that the Chinese Navy now has more ships than America, most of which are concentrated on the eastern Indo-Pacific region which is fast developing into the probable arena for the most dangerous political/military contest of this century

This emerging crisis has caused AUKUS to be formed, a new alliance which many view as the most significant military regrouping since the creation of NATO.

But if a strategic friendship and naval hardware deal between Paris and Canberra seems unlikely, it’s worth remembering that New Caledonia and Réunion – a French Overseas Territory and Department respectively – make the French key Pacific players. So, when France were excluded from the new English-speaking club and simultaneously hit hard hit in the pocket, a degree of Gallic irritation was perhaps understandable

To withdraw her ambassadors from Down Under and Washington, though, seems excessive. As does the French foreign minister publicly accusing Australia of lies and duplicity whilst suggesting that Britain was guilty of her “usual opportunism” and was a “wholly owned strategic subsidiary of the Americans”.

If that’s true, though, why wasn’t Britain’s ambassador recalled as well?

Well, since before France’s last election, President Macron has been saying that NATO is ‘brain dead’ and that US military help and leadership in Europe is fast diminishing.

He’s used President Joe Biden’s debacle in Afghanistan to illustrate this, underlining the President’s lack of consultation with his allies to show just how irrelevant NATO has become. Enter, of course, Mr Macron’s dream of a Euro army and a new imperative for the EU to secure her own defence and security under the leadership of guess who: France.

The point where the dream turns to a chimera, though, is the English Channel. Despite Brexit and the bitter vaccine squabbles of the last 18 months, France and the EU still need Britain’s increased spending on defence as well as our troops and our hardware. Similarly, the defence/industrial relationship between Britain and France is vital if Europe is to evolve into a credible defensive bloc that is even semi-independent of the US: that must be nurtured. And that, of course, is why the UK’s ambassador was not sent packing!

Now, with presidential elections next spring and a Marine Le Pen rematch looking tricky, a bit of chest thumping and Brit-bashing by President Macron might play rather well.

But he needs to tread carefully. Whatever happens in the German elections this weekend to decide Angela Merkel’s successor, Berlin is unlikely to develop a defence capability that matches her economic power anytime soon and few other Europeans have supported France’s splenetic outbursts over AUKUS.

There’s an opportunity here for France to emerge as the new kid on the leadership block, but no matter how distasteful it is in the light of Brexit, Britain will be a vital partner.

Similarly, it’s no coincidence that a Royal Navy carrier strike force headed east just before AUKUS was announced, although this overshadowed the launching by Brussels of the EU’s new 
Indo-Pacific strategy.

Now the challenge for President Macron is to weld the strengths of Europe to those of this new alliance whilst recognising that, for wholly different reasons, Britain and America’s global stance has changed. But to do that, Paris might like to try dialling down the rhetoric and dialling up the realpolitik.

Patrick Mercer is a former solider and ex-Tory MP for Newark.

Support The Yorkshire Post and become a subscriber today. Your subscription will help us to continue to bring quality news to the people of Yorkshire. In return, you’ll see fewer ads on site, get free access to our app and receive exclusive members-only offers. Click here to subscribe.