In Meeting With Macron, Biden Says U.S. Handling of Australia Submarine Deal Was ‘Clumsy’

In Meeting With Macron, Biden Says U.S. Handling of Australia Submarine Deal Was ‘Clumsy’

16:10 - French and U.S. leaders seek to overcome tensions on eve of G-20 summit after security pact sparked diplomatic ructions

President Biden said his administration was “clumsy” in handling negotiations on a submarine contract with Australia that led to a diplomatic rupture with France, as he met French President Emmanuel Macron in an attempt to mend relations with the longtime U.S. ally.

The two leaders met Friday for the first time since the dispute erupted, sitting next to each other in France’s Embassy to the Vatican in the center of Rome. The meeting came a day before leaders from the Group of 20 major economies gather in Rome over the weekend.

The goal was to ease tensions after one of the most bitter disputes in more than 200 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries. The U.S., U.K. and Australia last month announced a security pact under which Australia would receive coveted submarine nuclear-propulsion technology, a deal that resulted in France losing a $65 billion contract to supply submarines to Australia.

The French foreign minister called the deal “a stab in the back.” French officials say they weren’t told about the security pact before stories leaked about it in the Australian media the day the pact was announced.

“What we did was clumsy. It was not done with a lot of grace,” Mr. Biden said sitting next to Mr. Macron. “I was under the impression that France had been informed long before that the deal was not coming through. Honest to God.”

The episode prompted France to recall its ambassador to Washington. Messrs. Biden and Macron spoke following the tensions and agreed to meet during Mr. Biden’s trip to Europe for the G-20 and the COP26 climate summit.

“Now what’s important is precisely to be sure that such a situation will not be possible for our future,” Mr. Macron said.

The canceled submarine contract has created political problems for Mr. Macron back home. Six months ahead of the French presidential election, Mr. Macron’s likely opponents have attacked his government for being caught by surprise by the new security pact. Several have urged France to leave the military command of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and resist U.S. plans to rally the world’s major democracies against China. Mr. Biden is organizing a meeting of democratic nations in December.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan said ahead of Friday’s meeting that the two leaders would “literally cover the waterfront” on issues facing the U.S. and France, such as counterterrorism and trade and economic issues.

Mr. Sullivan said the U.S. was satisfied with what he described as intensive engagement with France in the past few weeks. He said he expected a “constructive and deeply substantive” meeting.

It remains unclear what steps France is seeking from the Biden administration. At a minimum, Mr. Macron wants backing from the U.S. for his vision of strategic autonomy, in which the European Union would build out its own defense capability and rely less on support from the U.S., the world’s foremost military power. Mr. Macron’s idea is controversial in Europe, and the U.S. has historically been skeptical of European defense initiatives that would be independent of NATO.

France has the biggest military of the 27 EU nations and is working with U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq. In Africa’s Sahel region, France is the leading force on an international counterterrorism mission backed by the U.S. that is targeting various militant groups operating in the area, including offshoots of al Qaeda. A joint statement published after last month’s diplomatic crisis said the U.S. would reinforce its backing for the mission.

President Biden said his administration was “clumsy” in handling negotiations on a submarine contract with Australia that led to a diplomatic rupture with France, as he met French President Emmanuel Macron in an attempt to mend relations with the longtime U.S. ally.

The two leaders met Friday for the first time since the dispute erupted, sitting next to each other in France’s Embassy to the Vatican in the center of Rome. The meeting came a day before leaders from the Group of 20 major economies gather in Rome over the weekend.

The goal was to ease tensions after one of the most bitter disputes in more than 200 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries. The U.S., U.K. and Australia last month announced a security pact under which Australia would receive coveted submarine nuclear-propulsion technology, a deal that resulted in France losing a $65 billion contract to supply submarines to Australia.

The French foreign minister called the deal “a stab in the back.” French officials say they weren’t told about the security pact before stories leaked about it in the Australian media the day the pact was announced.

“What we did was clumsy. It was not done with a lot of grace,” Mr. Biden said sitting next to Mr. Macron. “I was under the impression that France had been informed long before that the deal was not coming through. Honest to God.”

The episode prompted France to recall its ambassador to Washington. Messrs. Biden and Macron spoke following the tensions and agreed to meet during Mr. Biden’s trip to Europe for the G-20 and the COP26 climate summit.

“Now what’s important is precisely to be sure that such a situation will not be possible for our future,” Mr. Macron said.

The canceled submarine contract has created political problems for Mr. Macron back home. Six months ahead of the French presidential election, Mr. Macron’s likely opponents have attacked his government for being caught by surprise by the new security pact. Several have urged France to leave the military command of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and resist U.S. plans to rally the world’s major democracies against China. Mr. Biden is organizing a meeting of democratic nations in December.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan said ahead of Friday’s meeting that the two leaders would “literally cover the waterfront” on issues facing the U.S. and France, such as counterterrorism and trade and economic issues.

Mr. Sullivan said the U.S. was satisfied with what he described as intensive engagement with France in the past few weeks. He said he expected a “constructive and deeply substantive” meeting.

It remains unclear what steps France is seeking from the Biden administration. At a minimum, Mr. Macron wants backing from the U.S. for his vision of strategic autonomy, in which the European Union would build out its own defense capability and rely less on support from the U.S., the world’s foremost military power. Mr. Macron’s idea is controversial in Europe, and the U.S. has historically been skeptical of European defense initiatives that would be independent of NATO.

France has the biggest military of the 27 EU nations and is working with U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq. In Africa’s Sahel region, France is the leading force on an international counterterrorism mission backed by the U.S. that is targeting various militant groups operating in the area, including offshoots of al Qaeda. A joint statement published after last month’s diplomatic crisis said the U.S. would reinforce its backing for the mission.

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