The British government had no intention of causing “slight or upset” to France in the Aukus nuclear submarine deal with Australia, the UK defence secretary has said.
Ben Wallace faced a barrage of questions in Parliament over the deal in which Australia withdrew from a $90 billion conventional submarine contract with France in favour of an agreement for nuclear-powered vessels from Britain and the US.
The new Aukus (Australia, UK, US) security pact has caused outrage in the French government, leading to the withdrawal of ambassadors and harsh words.
But Mr Wallace attempted to play down the fallout with Britain’s geographically closest ally when asked during defence questions if he would “commit to working with France to improve relations” by fellow Tory Sir Edward Leigh.
“Britain and France are on many issues joined at the hip,” he responded, highlighting weapons development and counter-terrorism in both Africa and the Middle East.
“There is absolutely no intent here by the United Kingdom government to slight, upset or drive a wedge between us and France,” he insisted. “We have more in common than we have differing us. There was no sneakiness behind the back. It was fundamentally Australia's right to choose a different capability and it did.”
A number of MPs accused the government of being underhand, with one stating that “Paris was deceived”. The Aukus pact could also have negative consequences for a potential post-Brexit defence deal between Britain and the EU, an MP said.
However, Minister for Defence Procurement Jeremy Quin played down the row, saying that he had been in contact with his counterpart in Paris at the weekend and added: “I am looking forward to working very closely with the French in the years ahead.”
He stated that Canberra had approached Britain about the deal and “it would have been very strange not to have engaged in very constructive talks with Australia in those circumstances - that's not being secret or going behind people's backs, that's responding to a request”.
Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the defence committee, suggested that Aukus was correct in addressing the threat from China, and added that “there's no doubt France has overreacted to losing a major procurement deal”.
But the fallout continued on Sunday when Paris stated that there had been no hint of reneging on the deal during talks in June between President Emmanuel Macron and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Mr Morrison had presented concerns over delivery times and costs but these had been answered in writing by Mr Macron, a French official said.
The French president was only informed by Canberra of the deal's collapse in writing hours before it was announced.
With the fallout between the western allies having potentially serious security consequences, especially after the Afghanistan debacle, US President Joe Biden is expected to call Mr Macron this week. Australia’s trade minister also said he would seek a meeting with France to ease tension.