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NEW YORK – Key EU leaders on Monday bluntly accused US President Joe Biden of disloyalty to the transatlantic alliance, and asked him to explain why he had misled France and other European partners into forging a new strategic link with the United Kingdom and Australia in the Indo-Pacific.
The extraordinary reprimand of the new American president, whose election was celebrated across Europe as an opportunity to rejuvenate ties after Donald J. Trump’s four years of belligerence and combativeness, gave rise to the prospect of ‘a serious and prolonged rift between the Western powers.
“With Joe Biden’s new administration, America is back,” European Council President Charles Michel told reporters in New York as world leaders gathered for the General Assembly’s high-level segment United Nations. “What does it mean America is back? Is America back in America or elsewhere? We do not know.
Failing to consult with EU countries on the new Indo-Pacific strategy, under which Australia canceled a successful contract to buy French submarines, Michel said Biden rejected a deal struck by the leaders after many hours of talks at the G7 summit in Britain in June to remain united in the face of authoritarian regimes, especially Chinese.
“The basic principles of an alliance are loyalty and transparency,” said Michel, adding: “We observe a clear lack of transparency and loyalty.”
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen expressed her own dismay in an interview with CNN, in which she called France’s treatment “unacceptable” and asked Biden to provide an explanation.
“There are a lot of open-ended questions that need to be answered,” said von der Leyen. “One of our Member States was treated in a way that is not acceptable, so we want to know what happened and why. And therefore, you first clarify this before continuing as if nothing had happened. ”
Michel said the 27 EU heads of state and government will discuss the split with the United States at a dinner on October 5 in Slovenia, ahead of a summit focused on the Western Balkans.
And von der Leyen’s comment signaled a potential disruption of the first scheduled meeting of a new EU-U.S. Trade and Technology Council in Pittsburgh next week – an event that was supposed to showcase political partnerships. renewed between Brussels and Washington.
But despite the furious rhetoric, it was unclear what EU leaders might say or do about it, which some EU diplomats and officials have suggested was more of a trade dispute between Paris and Canberra and a question of wounded French pride, than a real cause to sever relations with the United States and sow divisions that could weaken NATO.
By placing themselves so squarely behind French President Emmanuel Macron – who still hasn’t said anything publicly and does not attend UN meetings – Michel and von der Leyen seemed to increase the risk of a protracted dispute that could be exploited by China, Russia and other rivals. , and increase the difficulty of finding a saving solution for the Western allies.
Michel insisted that the feud should not be seen as a matter of French economic interests, but rather as part of a pattern of contempt for European allies and their interests by four US presidents, as of the moment. where George W. Bush decided to wage war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Obama with charisma, very polite, took important decisions in Syria with negative consequences for Europe, and we could also observe a lack of coordination, of consultation between the United States and the European governments”, declared Michel. “At least with Donald Trump, it was very, very clear that he was not in favor of European integration, that for him Europe did not matter, but it was clear.”
Biden, on the other hand, spoke of a big game over renewing transatlantic ties, according to Michel, but then taunted European allies with his decision to follow through on Trump’s plan to withdraw from Afghanistan, “and “, he added,” a few days ago this strange announcement.
“When the transatlantic alliance is less robust and less solid, it is not good for security in Europe and around the world,” Michel said, adding: “It is more than a bilateral commercial or industrial issue. . It’s more than that.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian arrived in New York on Monday said all EU countries should be worried about the contempt the United States has shown its allies.
“Europeans must not be the rejections of the strategy chosen by the United States,” said Le Drian. “We are in this new state of mind, which means that the Europeans must identify their own strategic issues and discuss with the United States on this subject.”
Le Drian said the conversation was likely to take place in the context of the development of a new “strategic concept” in NATO, a tacit recognition that it would take a long time to face the affront of the Americans. , and some conviction of EU countries heavily depends on the United States for security guarantees.
A Scandinavian diplomat said Germany “shares French concern over the United States’ contempt for the EU in this matter” – a point which was confirmed by Manfred Weber, the German leader of the European People’s Party (EPP) dominant conservative in the European Parliament.
“I think that all Europeans should stand by France’s side because the main problem in this regard is whether we can really have a relationship of partnership, of trust with America,” Weber said in a statement. meeting of party officials in Rome. “That’s the stake.”
Fighting the battle of Paris
While Macron has remained silent, France has acted quickly to retaliate by recalling the ambassadors and also promising to scuttle a draft free trade agreement between the EU and Australia.
But despite very public statements from the EU’s top presidents, some European diplomats and officials have expressed concern that France is dragging the rest of the continent into an unnecessary fight largely because its own national ego has been bruised.
“What is concerning is that Paris is presenting something that was essentially a bilateral trade deal as a blow to the EU as such,” said a central European official. “I understand that Paris can be offended and taken by surprise, but seriously? ”
An EU diplomat from Western Europe reiterated this point: “This is mainly seen as a bilateral issue, not a European one. ”
The Scandinavian diplomat said there was some concern that Paris was exaggerating the deal. “I think there is a bit of surprise as to the harshness of the French reaction,” the diplomat said. “Is it mainly for home consumption? Is there a logic of calm foreign policy…. or is it, outright, offending pride? ”
Such concerns, however, almost certainly seemed to remain a minority view. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel nears retirement, the EU is losing its most authoritarian political figure, and many of the EU’s 26 other capitals are urgently turning to Macron, the leader of the second EU member countries, to help close part of the gap.
Earlier on Monday, some EU officials and diplomats said they wondered how far the Elysee Palace would go when trying to reframe the fallout as a call for greater EU unity and push to improve common security and military capabilities, often described as “strategic”. autonomy.”
But as the day wore on, that question seemed to have been answered.
“I am more convinced than ever of strategic autonomy,” said Michel, adding: “The announcement made by the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom of this new military alliance in the Indo-Pacific , it is only to strengthen my personal opinion that we need to develop our own capacity to act ”,
Weber echoed this point.
“This is another red flag for strengthening European defense, European foreign affairs,” Weber told POLITICO in Rome. “Everyone recognizes step by step that alone, as individual countries, we have no more impact, no more hold at the global level.”
Yet EU countries have long harbored doubts about France’s true motives for pushing for strategic autonomy, which many believe to be the cover of a “Buy French” economic development campaign on behalf of its citizens. defense contractors.
Eastern European countries in particular have long viewed the idea of strategic autonomy as dangerous and unrealistic, arguing that it could undermine NATO and that Europe could never defend itself against threats, especially from Russia, without the United States.
While the United States might be seen as too important to be lost, officials and diplomats have said there is little reason for the EU to temper its anger against Australia.
“Australia will pay a heavy price in terms of relations with the EU,” said a senior EU diplomat. “France will act in areas like trade, regulation, etc. and the Commission will not oppose France on an external issue.”
German MEP Andreas Schwab, also a member of the EPP, said the EU should not “deplore” any insult Washington perceives, but that Brussels should draw quick conclusions on the next steps to be taken in its own interest.
“The Europeans must not whine, they must take into consideration that their investments and their capacities are not as credible as what the Americans can give,” Schwab said. He added that the EU needs to consider whether a presence in the Indo-Pacific region is worth it, rather than focusing on areas closer to home, such as Ukraine, Belarus and Africa.
Michel, however, said the EU should definitely have a role to play against China.
“If you think of the United States that China is the main threat to the world,” he said, “it is very strange in my opinion that the United States and some other countries are choosing to ” weaken the transatlantic alliance and not strengthen the transatlantic alliance. It’s very strange to put Europe out of the game in the Indo-Pacific region.
“During the G7, we spent three days, we discussed a lot of geopolitical issues and especially of the Indo-Pacific region and China,” continued Michel. “We talked a lot about this, and the main conclusion was: we need to be united. ”
On the new US-UK-Australia deal, dubbed AUKUS, he said: “It’s hard to see this announcement as a sign of unity.
Lili Bayer, Jacopo Barigazzi, Maïa de la Baume, Cory Bennett, Clea Caulcutt, Stuart Lau and Rym Momtaz contributed reporting.