A long-planned round of free trade discussions between Australia and the EU has been postponed, a European official revealed Friday, following outrage over Canberra’s decision to terminate a large French submarine deal.
“The FTA trade round has been postponed for a month till November,” an EU official in Canberra told AFP, casting doubt on the pact’s viability.
Australia hastily canceled a multibillion-dollar contract for 12 French submarines last month, instead deciding to buy nuclear-powered US-designed vessels.
The decision sparked a significant diplomatic squabble with one of the European Union’s most powerful members, and it now appears to have severed ties with the whole union.
France has officially stated that it no longer trusts Australia’s government, accusing officials of lying and questioning the viability of the trade pact.
Dan Tehan, Australia’s Trade Minister, who was set to fly to Europe for the discussions, downplayed the decision.
“We understand the French outrage to our submarine decision,” he said in a statement to AFP. “Ultimately, any government must act in its national interest, which Australia has done.”
Tehan stated that he still intends to meet with EU Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis next week to discuss the 12th round of discussions. Dombrovskis represents the EU executive that negotiates trade treaties on behalf of its member countries.
“We will continue to prepare for the 12th round of negotiations and work toward the conclusion of a free trade agreement that is in both Australia’s and the EU’s interests.”
In Brussels, EU spokeswoman Miriam Garcia Ferrer emphasized that “these conversations are not over.”
Negotiations for trade agreements “are always about substance over speed, and there are numerous open concerns to be resolved. A one-month delay will also give us more time to prepare “She stated.
The European Union is Australia’s third-largest commercial partner, with goods commerce worth 36 billion euros ($42.4 billion) and services worth 26 billion euros last year.
The next round of negotiations was scheduled to include topics such as trade, services, investment, and intellectual property rights.
Negotiations began in 2018 with the goal of reaching a final agreement before the end of the year.
With elections in both Australia and France scheduled for early 2022, that timescale appears to be ambitious.
Both countries’ front pages have been dominated by the submarine controversy.
In response to the decision, France recalled its ambassadors from Canberra and Washington, a rare measure to criticize the behavior of friends.
The French ambassador returned to the United States on Wednesday, but there is no indication that the French ambassador to Australia, Jean-Pierre Thebault, will return.
Former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull stated this week that his successor and former party colleague “deliberately mislead” France by abandoning the agreement.
“Morrison (Prime Minister Scott) has not operated in good faith. He purposefully fooled France. He offers no explanation for his actions other than that they were in Australia’s national interest “Turnbull made the remarks to the National Press Club in Canberra.
“France believes she has been duped and humiliated, and she is correct. This violation of trust will haunt our relationship with Europe for years to come “He continued.
“The Australian administration has shown disrespect for the French Republic.”
Canberra says it canceled the deal because it determined it needed nuclear submarines, which can remain below and undetected for much longer periods of time, at a time when tensions with China are escalating.