The Observer view on Anglo-French relations

·3 min read

France’s extraordinary decision to recall its ambassadors to the US and Australia reflects deep anger over its exclusion from the secretly negotiated Aukus defence pact and the cancellation by Canberra of a £48bn submarine-building contract. Similar action has not been taken against Britain. But the row marks a new low in already tattered Anglo-French relations.

That’s but one of many challenges facing the new foreign secretary, Liz Truss, who replaced Dominic Raab in last week’s cabinet reshuffle. Is she up to the task? While popular among party activists, her record as a Brexit-promoting international trade secretary lacks significant achievement. Her elevation, like other new cabinet appointments, suggests once again that Boris Johnson favours chums over competence.

The Aukus row highlights fundamental problems with the “global Britain” project that Truss champions. One is the UK’s increasing subordination to the US when the Biden administration is exhibiting strong unilateralist tendencies. Britain was dragged along in the US’s slipstream during the Afghan debacle, which was Raab’s undoing, forced to follow a withdrawal policy it did not support.

Biden promised European partners last summer that post-Trump America was “back” in terms of transatlantic cooperation. That’s not how it looks now as Paris, Berlin and Brussels contemplate a major rift over the conduct and structure of security policy in the Indo-Pacific. China has condemned Aukus but will be delighted by the disarray among the western allies.

Hawkish Truss’s unoriginal, predictable views on Russia, Iran and the need to “get tough” with China may win approval in some quarters when she accompanies Johnson to the US this week. But over-reliance on an unreliable America would be fatal. She will do Britain a disservice if she fails to grasp the need to keep the UK and Europe aligned on security, defence and other issues.

Liz Truss, the new foreign secretary
Will Liz Truss, the new foreign secretary, be able to repair tattered Anglo-French relations? Photograph: Mark Thomas/Rex/Shutterstock

Despite the Brexit rupture, despite the Aukus “stab in the back” and despite Anglo-French tensions over migrants and fish, it is, or should be, obvious that the EU and Britain retain a shared interest in maintaining a common front in many areas. That’s what Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, reportedly told Johnson last week.

With the backing of France and Germany, Rutte re-tabled a proposal for increased security and defence collaboration with the EU. To smooth the way, Brussels has taken a more conciliatory stance on Irish-border customs controls. That should resonate with Truss, given the renewed warning by top Democrat Nancy Pelosi that a US-UK trade deal will not happen if Brexit undermines peace in Ireland.

Britain and France are Europe’s two biggest military powers, with capabilities that others, notably Germany, lack. Their common agenda extends to tackling the climate crisis – another big test for Truss as the Cop26 summit approaches – and the reviving threat of Islamist terrorism. It’s vital France’s suspicions that it is the victim of an “Anglosphere” conspiracy are not allowed to fester.

Related: ‘Stab in the back’: French fury as Australia scraps submarine deal

The furious reaction of Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, to the Aukus pact is not simply about lost business, though that undoubtedly hurts. It’s about a national and diplomatic humiliation coming seven months before a tough re-election battle against the resurgent far right. Do Truss and Johnson really want to end up dealing with a hostile, xenophobic President Marine Le Pen?

Latest developments are certain to intensify pressure within the EU, in the post-Merkel era, for the sort of strategic autonomy long advocated by Macron. Ursula von der Leyen, commission president, last week urged member states to find the “political will” to develop a credible, independent European military force. Whatever the intention, such a force, if created, would undercut Nato, Britain’s first and last line of defence.

Here’s a question for the new foreign secretary. If an increasingly unbiddable US goes one way and an angry, alienated Europe goes the other, where does Britain go?

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