The federal government is bracing itself for the possibility that EU trade talks could be disrupted, as France fumes over the decision to scrap a $90 billion submarine contract.
- France is a highly influential part of the 26-nation EU bloc
- European Affairs minister Clement Beaune says France can no longer trust Australia
- A 12th round of trade talks with the European Commission is scheduled for October
In a rare and dramatic diplomatic move, France’s Ambassador in Canberra was recalled yesterday for urgent talks in Paris.
As he departed for home, Jean-Pierre Thebault delivered a blunt assessment of the Morrison Government’s recent actions, calling them “clumsy, inadequate and unAustralian”.
Meanwhile, senior figures in France had already begun to hint at possible economic repercussions.
“We’re having trade negotiations with Australia,” European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune told broadcaster France 24.
The threat is being taken seriously in Canberra, given France is a key part of the 26-nation EU bloc.
It is known for being deeply protective of its agricultural industries, an area that was always likely to be the biggest hurdle in sealing a deal.
Talks with the European Commission on a massive trade pact started in 2018 and a 12th round of talks is scheduled for October.
Given there are several other countries with an interest in reaching an agreement with Australia, it is unclear how much France would be willing to disrupt discussions.
But some in Canberra think domestic considerations in Paris are likely to make the relationship with Australia very rocky for many months.
Need to overcome ‘substantial disappointment’
The French Presidential election is in April next year.
The scrapping of the submarine deal is a major economic blow for the state-owned Naval Group and a political setback for French President Emmanuel Macron, who will likely have his foreign policy credentials closely scrutinised in the lead-up to voting day.
“But we want to work with them to overcome it.”
He invoked Australia’s bloodshed on the western front more than a century ago as evidence of the ties between the two nations and said this spat could eventually be overcome.
“We need to remember the depth of the relationship with France, which dates back to World War I,” he said.
“We will continue to negotiate in deep faith.”
Opposition says PM must repair relationship
Despite the French anger, the Morrison Government is convinced scrapping the agreement and taking steps towards acquiring a nuclear-powered submarine fleet in the coming decades is the right thing for the nation.
The fleet is one of the first goals of the newly formed AUKUS alliance between Australia, the UK and the United States.
“Australia understands France’s deep disappointment with our decision, which was taken in accordance with our clear and communicated national security interests,” a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne said.
She added that Australia regretted the recall of Mr Thebault.
China has criticised the AUKUS alliance and nuclear submarine plan, claiming it could intensify a regional arms race.
But behind the scenes, senior members of the Morrison Government said the deal, in large part, came about due to Beijing’s recent actions, particularly in the South China Sea.
The Federal Opposition does not oppose the new AUKUS alliance and submarine project, but it does now want the Prime Minister to do more to fix the relationship with France.
“The Morrison-Joyce Government must outline what steps it is taking to repair this important relationship.”