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19 September 2021

Snookered by Anglo-Saxons

The withdrawal of an ambassador is the attempt to react to a 21st century strategic shift with 19th century diplomacy. Huffing and puffing achieves nothing. But France is right in one specific respect. The Aukus nuclear submarine alliance between the US, Australia and the UK will have lasting implications for Nato. Nato won’t be disbanded, but it will play a more peripheral role in the future. From the second world war until the last decade US foreign and security policy was focused on Europe and the Middle East. Under presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden it shifted to the Indo Pacific.

This begs the question: why is the UK part of this shift, and not France? The US considers France and the EU unreliable with respect to China because of their special relationships. Germany and France have pushed the EU-China comprehensive agreement on investment just before Biden’s inauguration. Germany runs massive export surpluses with China that it wants to protect. Armin Laschet and Olaf Scholz are both in favour of extending the bilateral relationship. Europe has also left a door open to Huawei for its 5G networks. It was only the UK that really cut the links. The Chinese ambassador in the UK reacted with unbridled fury. His colleagues in Paris and Berlin, by contrast, stayed quiet. I assume that they have received reassurances through back-channels.

The UK is clearly the junior partner in Aukus. But it is the only European country the US can trust in the pursuit of its strategic interests in the Indo Pacific. For the French, the UK is not the central issue here, but its participation constitutes the added insult to the injury. They have been, as they say in England, snookered.

If the UK had still been a member of the EU, this could still have happened theoretically, but not practically. From the UK’s perspective, Brexit allows strategic options that had hitherto been unthinkable. The UK is also part of the Five Eyes intelligence sharing group that comprises them, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The UK’s strategic realignment was not inevitable. It is to a large extent the result of how the EU conducted the Brexit talks. The EU leadership never missed an opportunity to criticise Brexit. Donald Tusk, former president of the European Council, aligned himself to the second referendum campaign in the UK. The EU could have, but did not, support MPs in the UK who sought compromise, like Kenneth Clarke or Stephen Kinnock.

The second mistake, even worse than the first, was the intent to force the EU’s regulatory system on the UK as a price for a free trade deal. At no point did the EU even consider what kind of strategic relationship it wanted with the UK after Brexit. The EU let anger over Brexit get in the way over rational decision-making.

The enormous cost of this stupidity is slowly becoming apparent. The UK will not flood the EU with cheap goods, as France had feared. The UK’s strategy is more subtle. It will gradually cut off from European security policy. It will also cut off from the GDPR data protection regime and financial regulation. The UK has invested more into artificial intelligence than any EU member states. It is a permanent member of the UN security council and the G7. What on earth was the EU thinking?

And no, Biden is not going intervene on the EU’s behalf in the current standoff over Northern Ireland. EU leaders have always underestimated Boris Johnson. And they always overestimated Joe Biden. A bad combination.

The EU’s diplomacy is driven by emotion and a superficial understanding of US politics, and UK politics for that matter. Why did the EU place so much hope, so publicly, into regime change in Washington last year? Donald Trump was loud and crass, but all he ever did to the EU, other than insult them, was impose tariffs. Europe never experienced anything nearly as hostile as Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan or the Aukus deal. But all of this was perfectly foreseeable.

The next foreseeable accident with Washington will be over nuclear sharing. The Greens and the Left Party, possible members of the next German coalition, want to get out of the US nuclear umbrella. The SPD still pays lip service to Nato, but the party is opposed to Nato 2% defence spending target.

Over time, I would expect Nato to wither, and the transatlantic link to weaken. The EU talks about strategic autonomy, but underestimates the size and, more importantly, the nature of the task. That would require a federal political union, with a federal foreign policy and European defence force, both independent of member states. To fund it, such a federal union would require tax raising and debt issuing powers. The UK’s inevitable strategic realignment is making that task even harder because the UK used to play a critical part in European security, one that Germany will not fill.

The adult version of strategic autonomy is a very serious undertaking, for which the EU is not equipped. The collective failure to understand Biden’s foreign policy and the need for an alliance with the UK is telling us that the venture has no hope of succeeding.

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