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Thierry Breton, the EU commissioner for internal markets, has warned that “something is broken” in transatlantic relations, as Franco-American tensions over Washington’s new Indo-Pacific security pact threaten to spill over into trade and technology.
Breton’s comments came after France tried to push Brussels to postpone the high-level US-EU trade and technology council (TTC) meeting due to take place in Pittsburgh this month in anger at the Biden administration’s handling of its submarine deal with Australia and the UK.
“There is of course in Europe a growing feeling that something is broken in our transatlantic relations,” Breton told the FT in an interview on Capitol Hill in Washington on Monday.
He added: “It’s true that we hear some voices in Europe saying that probably after what happened over the past two months, it may be a good idea to reassess everything we are doing, and our partnership”.
The TTC has been billed as an opportunity for the EU to boost co-operation with the Biden administration in key areas like semiconductor manufacturing and advanced technologies. But Breton, a former French finance minister and executive, suggested the chances of any major progress were limited.
“In this Council there are a lot of things that we can see pretty clearly what we can bring and will bring to the US, maybe it’s not always clear what the US can bring to us,” Breton said.
“I’m a strong believer in co-operation between the US and Europe because we have a lot of common interests. And if this common interest matches with European interest, yes, why not? But it should match”.
France’s request for a delay in the trade and technology talks is the latest in series of diplomatic retaliations from Emmanuel Macron’s government after France was excluded from a trilateral security partnership between the US, the UK and Australia.
Paris’s request to delay the EU’s talks with senior US officials would bring the bloc squarely into the bilateral spat. The European Commission will have to decide in the coming days whether to proceed with the meeting, which US and Brussels trade officials have been working towards for weeks.
Breton repeatedly declined to say whether the meeting would or would not go ahead as planned, saying while some called for a “pause”, he had no “information” to offer.
“I hope we will be able to reconcile, but you don’t do this only by words, you do this by acts,” he said.
The White House National Security Council said it had “warmly” welcomed the establishment of the TTC “for closer engagement and consultation on our shared interests”, which was launched at the EU-US summit in June, adding: “We are continuing to plan for an inaugural meeting of the TTC in Pittsburgh on Sept 29.”
France has accused Washington of betrayal, Canberra of duplicity and London of opportunism over the security alliance, dubbed Aukus. Paris has recalled its ambassadors from the US and Australia and cancelled a Franco-British meeting scheduled between the countries’ defence ministers this week.
Aukus will enable Canberra to build a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines and is designed to counter China’s military ambitions in the Indo-Pacific region. But it resulted in the cancellation of a A$50bn submarine contract between Paris and Canberra, the cornerstone of Macron’s Indo-Pacific strategy.
An EU diplomat said France had made the request to postpone EU-US talks before a meeting on Monday of EU foreign ministers in New York at the UN general assembly. The request has sparked resistance from other member states who are wary of souring transatlantic relations over French grievances.
“The French are actively looking at all channels for support in the EU after Aukus. We want to help France but it is in the EU’s interest to conduct talks with the US,” the person said.
An official for the French foreign ministry declined to comment.
EU trade chief Valdis Dombrovskis and commission vice-president for digital Margrethe Vestager are due to attend the inaugural TTC meeting alongside US secretary of state Antony Blinken, commerce secretary Gina Raimondo, and US trade representative Katherine Tai.
Commission president Ursula von der Leyen told CNN on Monday that there could not be “business as usual” after the EU was blindsided by Aukus.
“One of our member states has been treated in a way that is not acceptable. We want to know what happened and why and therefore, first of all clarify that before you keep on going with business as usual,” she said.
The commission said: “The TTC date was fixed some time ago to next week. We are now analysing the consequences of the Aukus announcement on this.”
Additional reporting by Anna Gross in Paris