If, for argument’s sake, you were a pan-European nationalist committed to the bloc’s consolidation as a sovereign, continental power, the tone of the Brexit debate within Britain would surely have been mystifying. While FBPE partisans relentlessly waved EU flags to signal their commitment to the project on Britain’s behalf, a broader view would have led them to the conclusion that Britain’s removal from the European Union would be a necessary sacrifice towards enabling true European integration.
For on the topic of Britain’s relationship with Europe, as with most things, we can now say that de Gaulle was right: Britain was always an awkward partner within the bloc, consistently applying the brakes to further integration. As he observed in his 1963 speech torpedoing Britain’s membership application to the European Community, “England in effect is insular, she is maritime, she is linked through her exchanges, her markets, her supply lines to the most diverse and often the most distant countries.”
No doubt de Gaulle, as Julian Jackson’s excellent recent biography notes, was influenced by memories of “that primal scene of an incandescent Churchill shouting on 4 June 1944 that in a choice between ‘Europe and the open sea’ he would always choose the latter.” For after all, as he told Macmillan in a sweeping assessment of Britain’s national character and destiny, “the sense of being an island remains very strong with you. England looks to the sea, towards wider horizons. She remains very linked to the United States by language, by habits and by certain agreements. The natural course of your policy leads you to seek the agreement of the Americans because you are ‘mondiaux’ … Your entry will change everything.”
Imbued with a sense of France’s destiny and national glory, the general was pained by, in Jackson’s phrasing, “a bewilderment that Britain had allowed herself to lose a sense of national ambition and become, in his eyes, an American satellite”. As de Gaulle stated, once the United States entered the war, Churchill had “passed the flame on to the Americans and abased himself before them.”
Gently discouraging British hopes of EC membership at the 1962 Rambouillet summit, he told Macmillan that by the middle of the war “power had passed to the United States and Britain had very reasonably decided to align herself with the Americans in the belief that this was the best way she could influence United States policy. He quite saw that the United Kingdom had not entirely abandoned hope that this policy might still be successful.” Speaking frankly to his own advisers, de Gaulle put the matter more bluntly: “the English console themselves with their decline by claiming that they share in American hegemony.”
It is not hard to see the continued relevance of de Gaulle’s musings on Britain’s essential nature in France’s reactions to the Aukus announcement, as when France’s foreign minister Yves le Drian remarked of Britain, “the fifth wheel on the wagon”, that “we know their permanent opportunism”. As France’s Secretary of State for European Affairs, Clément Beaune, noted with haughty disregard, “Our British friends explained to us that they were leaving the E.U. to create ‘global Britain’, but “we can see that this is a return to the American fold and a form of accepted vassalisation.” Indeed, he added, “The UK is clearly trying to find its feet, perhaps there was a lack of thought about the strategic future… We see through this partnership, this strategic alliance and after the Kabul crisis, that Global Britain seems to be more about a US junior partner than working with different allies.”
For all the cattiness of Beaune’s phrasing, which casts London’s eager subordination as something closer to an English perversion than a coherent strategic vision, he is not wrong. The Aukus agreement locks both Britain and Australia into an objectively junior role in America’s developing strategic posture in the Pacific, whatever that might turn out to be. Yet by the time the first of the new Australian submarines are actually deployed, in 20 years time, the outcome of the looming contest in the region will likely already have been decided. After all, American planners expect a confrontation over Taiwan to take place within the next six years. By the time Australia’s full complement of 12 submarines is reached, in the mid-2060s, most of the people now furiously discussing their role in a Taiwan conflict will long be dead, and the geopolitical environment will look at least as different as the world of Reagan and Brezhnev does to us now.
The submarines are not, therefore, the central point of the agreement, which we can interpret as a smaller, tighter auxiliary alliance complementing the role played by Five Eyes in locking the Anglophone defence establishment into the defence of the American-led order, with the wavering Canadians and New Zealanders left to follow their own future paths. As the French defence analyst Mathieu Duchâtel notes, the broader context of the Aukus agreement is one in which, unlike the situation in the 1990s, the US has already lost strategic dominance in the Taiwan Strait and the broader first island chain flanking China, and therefore seeks to establish greater strategic depth through basing options in Australia. Aukus may or may not be a good strategic bet— Australia’s most eminent strategists seem markedly more sceptical of its wisdom than their British equivalents — but either way, it is now seemingly inevitable.
What alternative strategy were the French offering? As a neighbour to Australia, with nearly two million French citizens living in its Pacific possessions, France has its own strategic interests in the region, which are not necessarily the same as Australia’s. We see hints of Macron’s thinking in his recent overtures to India — a member of the Quad but with its own independent foreign policy — with its assurances of French “commitment to the strengthening of India’s strategic autonomy, including its industry and technology base,” which, with its emphasis on “regional stability and the rule of law, while ruling out any form of hegemony,” indicates an interest in carving out space in a future multipolar order rather than a commitment to defend a waning unipolar one.
The long-standing Anglo-Saxon anxiety over French ambitions manifested itself in the recent esoteric Macronism of the Telegraph and Spectator, the former of which claimed that Macron was willing to donate its UN Security Council seat to the EU in exchange for pushing forward with strategic autonomy (a claim swiftly denied by France as the fantasies of an “English tabloid”), and the latter pronouncing that Macron seeks a “new order” under “undisputed French leadership… which is to say, his own leadership”. Whether or not a united, consolidated Europe as a global power helmed by the continent’s most ambitious and openly civilisational thinker is a realistic prospect — or whether it is a desirable one — it is fair to say that the Aukus agreement, rather than acting as a check on French ambitions of strategic autonomy, has hastened their day in the sun.
As the American defence analyst and former State Department strategist Max Bergmann noted recently, the poorly-handled announcement of the Aukus deal strengthens Macron’s case for strategic autonomy, through undermining the Atlanticist faction within the French foreign policy establishment. “That the United States humiliated France in such a brazen way has discredited those views completely,” he says, “Instead, the episode will empower stakeholders in Paris who advocate for a much cooler relationship with Washington and — tapping into the Gaullist foreign policy tradition — wish to be allied with the United States, but not necessarily aligned on key issues related to Russia and China.”
As Bergmann points out, “the State Department has spent the last 23 years — ever since Secretary of State Madeleine Albright expressed reservations — vigorously opposing a greater defence role for the European Union. A generation of foreign service officers have thus spent their careers opposing the concept,” so that “the decrepit state of European militaries is a huge indictment of post-Cold War U.S. policy toward Europe… In that sense, U.S. policy has been successful, since Europe is as dependent as ever. But this is not a good situation for the United States or Europe.”
The logic of the case is unarguable — as the eminent Australian defence strategist Hugh White remarks, for America, China “is the most formidable rival the country has ever faced, and it will demand huge sacrifices to defeat”. Among those sacrifices may well be America’s longstanding policy of keeping Europe militarily dependent. As the Biden administration rebalances its military power towards the Pacific, jettisoning unaffordable distractions like its long entanglements in the Muslim world, a Europe capable of defending itself in its volatile near abroad lightens the burden on the Pentagon. While Poland and the Baltic states may prefer the American military umbrella to a French-led one, not least because of Macron’s occasional flirtations with Russia, the choice of how America deploys its vast but finite military assets is ultimately not theirs to make.
Bergmann therefore urges the Biden administration to support the French push for heightened EU defence integration, arguing that if it is not pursued with America’s blessing, it may take place anyway in a form more obstructive to American goals, and besides, he may be pushing at an open door. The carefully-worded statement with which Macron and Biden healed their recent rift implies that France may have won a concession with its national fit of pique: “the United States also recognises the importance of a stronger and more capable European defence, that contributes positively to transatlantic and global security and is complementary to NATO.” That is, Macron has seemingly won Biden’s cautious blessing for further European defence integration distinct from, though not in opposition to, NATO structures, a dramatic shift in American policy, and one partly enabled by Brexit.
After all, as Bergmann argues, America “used its influence to press E.U. members, such as the United Kingdom (before it withdrew from the European Union) and Poland, to oppose various E.U. defence proposals”, thereby justifying de Gaulle’s warning that by allowing the “Trojan horse” Britain’s membership of the EC “would take on the appearance of a colossal Atlantic community under American dependence and direction.” As the EU parliament explained in its official 2019 report into the effects of Brexit on European integration, on security questions, Britain functioned as “the leading blocker, most often out of a fear of jeopardising NATO and frustrating links with the USA”, and in doing so for decades “limited the EU’s ability to independently develop strategic outlooks and capabilities.”
Even after the Brexit vote, the then-defence minister Sir Michael Fallon promised to “continue to oppose any idea of an EU army, or an EU army headquarters which would simply undermine Nato,” insisting that “Nato must remain the cornerstone of our defence and the defence of Europe.” Within the EU, Britain eagerly fulfilled the role of America’s spoiler, watering down any efforts towards Europe-wide defence integration outside NATO structures, yet those days are now gone. For all the remaining dissent within the European Union over the idea, the Atlanticist pole has been weakened by Britain’s self-ejection from the bloc.
We can say then, that while Britain’s defence establishment congratulates itself over transferring its role as America’s junior partner to warmer Pacific waters, France’s loss of the submarine deal may paradoxically have strengthened its hand in pursuing its wider goal of strategic autonomy here in Europe, helped along by America’s rapidly accelerating anxiety over China.
The EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell Fontelles takeaway lesson from the Ausuk announcement is that Europeans have to have a stronger military capacity in order to share a more important part of the burden that represents the defence of the Western world…in the places where we cannot expect the U.S. intervene or the NATO intervene,” adding that “We have to share our part of responsibility, and we have to be able to act alone, if needed.” This is, simply, the logical direction of travel as Europe’s importance dwindles in Washington’s rear view mirror, and Europeans realise they will soon be forced to defend their own interests, whether or not they want to. As the European Commission’s Vice President, Maros Sefcovic noted, “I think that after Kabul, after Aukus, this was, I would say the natural conclusion, that we need to focus more on the strategic autonomy,” and future summits on the question loom.
Macron’s oft-stated ambivalence over NATO is matched by a generalised European indifference or even hostility to the very idea of a Cold War with distant China. Through no particular fault of either party, the transatlantic marriage between America and Europe is growing cool as each partner pursues their own divergent interests; and as they drift apart, both Brexit and Aukus have played a minor but nevertheless real role in widening the gulf between them. As Britain commits itself to following America’s destiny on the high seas, no doubt de Gaulle would have welcomed these final parting gifts of Anglo-Saxon diplomacy.