Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison has resolutely stood by his decision to bin a £50bn contract with the French to build a new fleet of attack submarines in favour of a deal with the United States and Britain as part of the AUKUS defence pact signed last week.
Following the heavy-handed decision by Emmanuel Macron’s government to recall ambassadors from Canberra and Washington on Friday, Morrison frankly told the media that the French were made fully aware of his government’s concerns their submarines were not up to scratch.
“This is an issue that had been raised by me directly some months ago and we continued to talk those issues through, including by defence ministers and others,” Morrison told reporters on Sunday.
Morrison did little to try and ease tensions with France as he defiantly stood up for the national interest. “I think they would have had every reason to know that we had deep and grave concerns that the capability being delivered by the Attack Class submarine was not going to meet our strategic interests,” he said.
“We made very clear that we would be making a decision based on our strategic national interest. I don’t regret the decision to put Australia’s national interest first. Never will.”
Defence minister, Peter Dutton said the Australian government had been “upfront, open and honest” in its communications with Paris.
The submarine project with French company, Naval Group had been languishing due to cost overruns and design changes. In April, the Australians refused to sign off the next phase. A few months later, Greg Moriarty, the top civil servant in the Department of Defence publicly indicated that Canberra was reconsidering its options.
The French are feebly using a joint declaration by both countries from the end of August highlighting the “importance” of the doomed deal to make their case.
Having already pulled their biggest diplomatic leaver against Britain’s key allies in recalling ambassadors, France can do little else than fire accusations at the Australians.
“There has been a lie, there has been duplicity, there has been a major breach of trust, there has been contempt,” said France’s foreign minister, Jean Yves Le Drian on TV channel France 2 at the weekend.
Le Drian’s comments come after his ambassador to Australia likened the killing of the deal to “treason”.
For the time being, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron is keeping out of the fight in public. He is due to seek “clarification” from Joe Biden during a phone call “in the next few days” – how much he’ll get is open to debate after America’s president forgot Morrison’s name during the unveiling of AUKUS pact last week.
“I think the French… will milk it for all it’s worth,” a diplomat told Reuters alluding to Macron’s obsession with the European Union becoming a global power.
But such hopes are also open to severe scrutiny. With Britain out of the EU, France is the bloc’s only nuclear power and big military spender, other capitals are unwilling to up their budgets. Macron may try and make a bold pitch for a more assertive Europe – as indeed, the European Commission President did last week – but it is unlikely to convince.