Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been forced to explain the circumstances leading up to the cancellation of the AU$90 billion submarine deal with France after extensive criticism from commentators and media outlets.
French President Emmanuel Macron on the weekend accused Morrison of lying to him around the circumstances related to the scrapping of the Future Submarines Program with French defence contractor Naval Group.
In response, Morrison read a comprehensive statement outlining the situation leading up to the cancellation of the project, saying the French government were aware that Australia was considering alternative options.
“There was a lot of issues in relation to delays in the project and, of course, the costs. These were matters that we raised quite regularly, and indeed I raised with President Macron at each opportunity when we either spoke over the phone or we had our bilateral meetings going over a number of years,” he told reporters on Nov. 1.
“After the 2019 election, I began to enquire into these issues and tasked Defence to give us options and alternatives in the event that circumstances prevailed that we wouldn’t be able to proceed,” he added.
“This is a contract. It has gates in it, and the purpose of this contract was to deliver submarines to Australia that would suit our defence interests and our strategic defences. That’s the point of this contract, and that’s what we were seeking to procure under this arrangement,” he said, noting that a December project gate under the current project was also missed.
Morrison said that the French president did all he could to salvage the deal, including sending Vice-Admiral Bernard-Antoine Morio to Australia.
However, a decision was made to go with the newly signed AUKUS trilateral pact, with the prime minister saying he believed it was “the right call.”
“I don’t wish to personalise this. There’s no element of that from my perspective. I must say that I think the statements that were made questioning Australia’s integrity and the slurs that have been placed on Australia … But those slurs, I’m not going to cop sledging at Australia. I’m not going to cop that on behalf of Australians,” he said.
At the weekend, French President Emmanuel Macron told Australian reporters at the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Rome, “I have a lot of respect and a lot of friendship for your people.”
“I just say when we have respect, you have to be true, and you have to behave in line and consistently with this value,” he added.
When asked whether he believed he was lied to, he responded, “I don’t think. I know.”
French anger was triggered following the announcement of the AUKUS pact between Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom in September.
While AUKUS promises greater technological collaboration between the allies, the focus has been on how the U.S. and UK governments will assist Australia with acquiring at least eight nuclear-powered submarines.
The move saw the Australian government take up a contractual option to cancel the ongoing deal leading to French ministers reacting angrily and accusing Australia and the United States of “stabbing it in the back” while recalling its ambassadors from Canberra and Washington D.C.
The reaction has been mixed with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson telling the French government to “donnez-moi un break” or get over the situation, while U.S. President Joe Biden recently conceded that his administration was “clumsy” in its handling of the deal.
French President Macron is also busy dealing with an impending election next year and an ongoing dispute with the UK government over fishing rights.
Domestically, federal opposition leader Anthony Albanese was critical of Morrison’s handling of international relations.
“What you need when you deal with international relations and with diplomacy is honesty and integrity,” he told reporters.
“The fact is that President Macron has said very clearly, and unequivocally that Scott Morrison did not tell him. He can’t have made it any clearer.”
Acting Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce said the matter was not serious enough to warrant an international incident.
“We didn’t steal an island. We didn’t deface the Eiffel Tower. It was a contract,” he told reporters.
Joseph Siracusa, adjunct professor of the history of international diplomacy at Curtin University, said the situation should have ideally been handled behind closed doors.
“Governments lie to each other all the time. Sometimes they don’t tell everybody everything. So, I think this is one of those unfortunate disputes that shouldn’t be in public,” he told The Epoch Times.
“France regards itself a great empire, and it doesn’t want to be treated as a small person, small nation. So, they were offended that way,” he said.
“But nations do what they must do to survive, and that’s beyond discussion. Australia will do what it has to do.”