CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — French and Australian officials said Monday that France’s anger over a canceled submarine contract will not derail negotiations on an Australia-European Union free trade deal.
France withdrew its ambassadors to the United States and Australia after U.S. President Joe Biden revealed last week a new tripartite alliance including Australia and Britain that would allow Australia to amass a fleet of at least eight nuclear-powered submarines.
The deal sunk a 90 billion Australian dollar ($66 billion) contract for French majority state-owned Naval Group to provide 12 conventional diesel-electric submarines for Australia. The money would have been spent over 35 years.
French Ambassador to Australia Jean-Pierre Thebault denied media reports that France was lobbying the European Union not to sign the trade deal with Australia that has been under negotiation since 2018.
“At this stage, negotiations do continue and there is a strong interest ... for Australia to have a free trade agreement with the EU,” Thebault told Australian Broadcasting Corp. from Paris.
Such a deal “has the potential to deliver a huge amount of benefits for Australia,” Thebault added.
Australian Trade Minister Dan Tehan said he would travel to Paris within weeks for trade negations and was “very keen to touch base with my French counterpart,” Franck Riester.
“There’s a strong understanding from my recent trip to Europe to discuss the EU free trade agreement this is in the mutual interests of both Australia and of Europe,” Tehan said, referring to an April visit.
“I see no reason why those discussions won’t continue,” Tehan added.
The European Commission, the executive branch of the 27 EU nations, said it was analyzing the U.S., British and Australian deal.
French President Emmanuel Macron will speak in the coming days with Biden in their first contact since the diplomatic crisis erupted.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison flew to the United States on Monday for a meeting with Biden and the leaders of India and Japan that make up the Quad security forum.
“This is all about, always about ensuring that Australia’s sovereign interests will be put first to ensure that Australians here can live peacefully with the many others in our region, because that’s what we desire as a peaceful and free nation,” Morrison said before departing Sydney.
Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, who is acting prime minister in Morrison's absence, said his country had proven its support for France's freedom through Australian lives lost in two world wars.
“Australia doesn’t need to prove their affinity and their affection and their resolute desire to look after the liberty and the freedom and the equality of France," Joyce said.
“I can understand how the French are upset and we obviously want this to pass and to us to work closely again. But let’s remember, tens of thousands of Australians died on French soil over two world wars protecting France in France, and protecting France from the enemy that was going to invade France," he said.
For Australia, World War I was the costliest conflict in terms of deaths and injuries. From a population of fewer than 5 million, 416,809 men enlisted, of whom more than 60,000 were killed and 156,000 wounded or taken prisoner, according to the Australian War Memorial.
French Ambassador to the United States Philippe Etienne said bilateral relations were strained but not severed by the submarine deal.
“It’s not a rupture (in relations with the U.S.), but the moment was serious enough to make this kind of diplomatic gesture," Etienne told French radio RTL.
“We in Europe need the Americans, but the Americans also have the desire to continue working with us,” he said.
Associated Press writer Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.