The postponement of trade talks between the European Union and Australia has raised fears in Canberra that a split with France over the abandoned submarine contract could slow the pressure for closer economic ties.
The EU confirmed on Friday reports that the 12th round of negotiations – originally scheduled for October – had been postponed until November.
The opposition Labor Party cited this development as proof that Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison had “failed to do the necessary diplomatic work to manage relations with our French partners”.
The month-long delay came amid a disagreement over the Morrison government’s decision to forgo a $ 90 billion contract for the delivery of submarines in favor of a nuclear-powered option with the United States. United and the United Kingdom. Paris complained that it had been misled or “lied to” just hours before the decision was revealed.
Australian Trade Minister Dan Tehan, who struggled to secure a meeting with his French counterpart on his next trip to Paris, said in a statement on Friday: his national interest – that’s what Australia has made.
The Guardian reported last week that France was seeking EU support to delay a planned trade deal with Australia, although Tehan insisted at the time that the Australian government viewed the negotiations as “as usual”.
On Friday, Tehan said he was still due to meet his European counterpart, Valdis Dombrovskis, next week to discuss the 12th round of negotiations, but that the actual negotiations “will now take place in November rather than October”.
A spokesperson for the European Commission said the postponement “would allow us to better prepare”.
“We can confirm that we will delay the next round of trade negotiations by one month,” the spokesperson said.
âThis is not the end of these negotiations. FTA negotiations always focus on substance rather than speed and there are many open questions to negotiate. “
Another spokesperson for the committee said: âThe EU is not about punishing anyone. Australia is a partner of the European Union. We have ongoing trade negotiations. Trade negotiations are very, very specific beasts. The substance of negotiation is one that certainly requires a lot more effort and so it is not uncommon for such decisions to be made. “
Diplomatic sources said the postponement was only “symbolic”. “He’s a face saver for France,” said a source. “People are pretty tired of the demagoguery in Paris on Aukus.”
However, a second diplomat suggested that the current flow of German politics left Emmanuel Macron in a stronger position to persuade the commission and other member states to put the Australian deal on ice. “There is not much time for French demagoguery, but also the agreement with Australia is not of such importance to many that they will stand up and fight with Paris,” the said. source.
Tehan mounted a case to protect trade negotiations from the underwater dispute.
“A free trade agreement is in the interests of Australia and the European Union and will strengthen our relationship which is based on a common commitment to democracy, human rights, the state of law and economic openness, âTehan said.
But Labor has accused the prime minister of “diplomatic failures” which “now endanger Australian exporters and jobs, just when Australia needs urgent trade diversification.”
Labor Senate leader Penny Wong said: “Mr Morrison now has his work cut out for him if he is to restore trust with our European partners.”
Madeleine King, opposition spokesperson for trade, added: âThe European Union is our second largest trading partner – our exporters need a government that offers new market access and expanded opportunities to trade. business and supporting Australian jobs.
Since the announcement of the new Aukus pact and its plan to develop nuclear-powered submarines in the United States or the United Kingdom, the Morrison government has struggled to control the diplomatic fallout from a rabid France.
French entrepreneur Naval Group accused Australia of breaking the $ 90 billion deal “out of convenience”, while the French foreign minister said “someone lied” because Australia had reassured France that the program was on the right track.
This week, Morrison’s predecessor as Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, called it a “dreadful episode” in Australia’s international affairs, suggesting that the government’s handling of the matter was “awkward, deceptive and costly “.
Morrison did not respond directly to Turnbull’s firmer comments on Friday, saying he wanted to “show great respect to my predecessors.” But the PM brushed aside one of Turnbull’s criticisms of the feasibility of Australia operating nuclear-powered submarines without a civilian nuclear industry.
“The idea that Australia must have a civilian nuclear power industry is not a requirement for us to go through the submarine program,” Morrison told reporters on Friday.
He said the government would “build on the great experience” of the Australian Organization for Nuclear Science and Technology and on Australia’s existing scientific capacity.
Morrison has yet to secure an appeal with French President Emmanuel Macron. An official at the Elysee Palace said this week that any future talks between the two leaders should be “seriously prepared” and have “substance”.
Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton said on Friday his government wanted to be “the best friends we can be” with France. âThey are much appreciated partners, but they are hurt,â Dutton told the Nine Network.
While talks with the EU have been postponed, there are signs of modest progress in Australia’s hopes of deepening trade ties with India, amid tensions with the country’s main trading partner. Australia and China have sparked calls for trade diversification. Australia and India have set a target of reaching an interim agreement by the end of December.