The US, Australia and the UK insisted on Monday that the diplomatic crisis wouldn’t affect their longer-term relations with France, which is seething over a surprise, strategic submarine deal involving the three countries that sank a rival Adelaide-based French submarine contract.
France recalled its ambassadors to the US and Australia for the first time because of the deal, and its anger is showing few signs of subsiding.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, in New York to represent France at the UN General Assembly, is meeting with foreign ministers from the other 26 European Union nations in New York, where he will discuss the consequences of the submarine deal and France’s vision for a more strategically independent Europe.
France won support on Monday from the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, who told CNN that “one of our member states has been treated in a way that is not acceptable. We want to know what happened and why”.
While US President Joe Biden is hosting Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson this week, he won’t see French President Emmanuel Macron, who is not travelling to the UN.
Instead, Biden plans a call with Macron in the coming days, where he will underscore the US commitment to its alliance with France and lay out specific measures the two nations can take together in the Indo-Pacific, according to a senior US administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss planning for the leaders’ call.
The official said while the administration understands the French position on the issue, it did not “share their view in terms of how this all developed”.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said a disagreement about “a single decision” would not disrupt a relationship or harm the US’ standing across Europe.
The submarine deal, known as AUKUS, will see Australia cancel a contract to buy diesel-electric French submarines and instead acquire nuclear-powered vessels from the US.
The US, Australia and Britain say the deal bolsters their commitment to the Indo-Pacific region, and has widely been seen as a move to counter an increasingly assertive China.
Morrison today shrugged off the risk that the submarine deal could derail free-trade negotiations with the EU.
He insists Australia must act in its national interests and is confident issues can still be worked through in coming months.
“It’s not an easy thing to do, to get an agreement with the European Union on trade. I think everyone understands that,” he told reporters after landing in the US on Tuesday morning Australian time.
Morrison is scheduled to meet with NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen during his trip.
“It would be naive to think a decision of this nature was not going to cause disappointment, obviously, to the French. We understand that,” the prime minister said.
“It was not possible for us to be able to discuss such secure issues in relation to our dealings with other countries at the time.”
Morrison also talked up Australia’s commercial relationships with various EU countries, including a defence contract with Germany.
“We’re looking to establish even more of those relationships directly,” Morrison said.
Meetings with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven are also on the prime minister’s agenda.
Bernd Lange, who chairs the European Parliament’s trade committee, warned Australia’s submarine decision had damaged trust and was seen as an attack on European interests.
The German politician said some member states were struggling to find compromises on agriculture as part of the trade talks.
“Some members could ask for more safety nets, for more safeguards in such agreement. So I guess the dialogue and the negotiation will take more time,” he told ABC radio.
Lange suggested the about-turn could make the EU more reticent to cooperate with Australia in other areas such as clean hydrogen.
“The question of trust and the question of safeguards will, I guess, be the consequence of the situation we are faced with,” he said.
He proposed Australia offer an apology to France for the “unkind” situation imposed on it.
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese emphasised France was important in the Indo-Pacific region.
“Friends need to treat each other with respect,” he said.
“The prime minister needs to make sure that he concentrates not just on the announcement, but on the details around announcements as well.”
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