Tensions between European leaders and the White House over a scuppered submarine deal threatened to overshadow President Joe Biden’s address to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, with one EU official saying “something is broken” in the transatlantic alliance.
The French government has been seething since last week, when Australia abandoned a huge deal to buy conventional submarines from France. Instead, the US and UK announced they would help Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines as part of a new security pact called AUKUS.
The move has opened a new fissure in the Western alliance and sparked growing public criticism from other European officials.
Thierry Breton, the EU commissioner for internal markets, said in an interview with CNN on Monday that “something is broken between our relations in Europe and the US.”
Breton warned there was a “growing feeling” in Europe over past few weeks and there had been a “lack of trust and confidence between allies.”
“I’m here again to make sure that we rebuild this partnership, even if in some areas we may need to pause and reset it,” he added.
France reacted with fury to news of the new pact on Thursday, and that Australia was abandoning its $65 billion deal to buy French-built, conventionally powered submarines. In the wake of the deal, France recalled its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra, and asked the EU to reconsider Australia’s bid for a free-trade deal with the bloc.
While Biden has asked for talks with French President Emmanuel Macron in an attempt to smooth relations, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Tuesday he would not speak with Macron during the UN this week.
“That is not an opportunity for that at this time. I’m sure that opportunity will come in time. But right now, I understand the disappointment,” Morrison said.
Macron will not be in New York for the UN General Assembly and will not send a pre-recorded address, a spokesperson confirmed to CNN Tuesday. He had originally been slated to deliver a pre-recorded statement.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Monday that Biden and Macron had agreed to speak “in the coming days.”
In announcing the deal last Wednesday, Biden said AUKUS would reinforce alliances and it marks a major step toward countering China. But the trilateral partnership has alienated key European allies and now the bloc is calling for answers over France’s treatment.
In an exclusive interview with CNN on Monday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said “a lot of questions” must be answered when it comes to the breakdown of the French-Australian submarine deal.
“One of our member states has been treated in a way that is not acceptable, so we want to know what happened and why,” von der Leyen said, adding that the situation must be clarified “before you keep on going with business as usual.”
Speaking from New York where she is attending the UN General Assembly, von der Leyen went on to say that the EU “will step up” to build its defense.
“Many of our member states are members of NATO, and NATO is the strongest military alliance in the world, but it is important to have a strong European pillar in NATO, and to have for the European Union the capabilities to act independently in theaters where for example NATO is not, but the EU is called upon,” she told Amanpour.
Von der Leyen is among a number of EU officials to express solidarity with France in recent days.
“The European solidarity and the support for France was very clear,” among EU leaders, France’s Minister of State for European Affairs, Clément Beaune, said on Tuesday of comments from the EU Commission president, the president of the EU Council and the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs.