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No European capital could be happier about Australia’s new leader than Paris.
Labor Party chief Anthony Albanese defeated incumbent Prime Minister Scott Morrison in an election held last weekend, months after the latter killed a submarine deal with France, snubbed Paris to form the so-called AUKUS alliance with London and Washington, and was accused of leaking a private text from the French president himself.
Jean-Yves Le Drian, until last week France’s foreign minister, took a final, brutal swipe at Morrison on Sunday, saying his defeat “suits me just fine.” In diplomatic language, that’s as close to a f**k you as it gets.
Albanese is now trying to turn the page on that ugly chapter in Franco-Australian relations. The new prime minister could get a chance to meet with French President Emmanuel Macron and his fellow European leaders as soon as next month; Australia has been invited to attend the NATO summit in Madrid, thanks to its status as one of the alliance’s “partners across the globe.”
Ahead of that, two things will be top of Albanese’s EU agenda: Repairing the relationship with France, and finalizing a free-trade agreement with Brussels that has languished after the submarine furor.
Albanese put in some early groundwork, congratulating Macron on his reelection to the French presidency: “France has long stood tall as a beacon of liberty and democracy,” he tweeted last month, before his own election victory. “That will continue with your leadership, as will our two nations’ friendship. It was forged in war, and I know it has a bright future.”
A senior French diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, cheered the “good news,” of Albanese’s win. “With the departure of Morrison we have now a good opportunity to reset our bilateral relationship,” he added.
One key aspect, he noted, would be for France and Australia to focus on cooperation in Pacific island states — which was also highlighted as a priority by the new Australian foreign minister Penny Wong. “Our cooperation in the Pacific was not really affected by the AUKUS crisis: we maintained our joint engagement in favor of island states of the region, for instance humanitarian relief in Tonga,” the French diplomat said.
Macron himself has yet to publicly congratulate Albanese, though he has written a private letter to the new Australian prime minister.
“The bilateral relationship between Australia and France is underpinned by strong and enduring historical links,” a senior Australian government official said. “The Albanese government looks forward to continuing to strengthen these links and fostering mutual respect between our two governments.”
But don’t expect Albanese to reverse course on AUKUS, as evidenced by his first calls after winning the election.
“I spoke with [U.K.] Prime Minister Boris Johnson … We discussed our shared commitment to AUKUS,” Albanese tweeted Monday — his first official day on the job. A day earlier, after it had become apparent he would form a government, the Australian Labor Party leader said he had spoken with U.S. President Joe Biden, tweeting: “Good to speak with @POTUS today and reaffirm the long-standing alliance between our two countries.”
In short, Albanese is paddling furiously to keep AUKUS above water — but also to get Macron smiling again.
“I expect Canberra will make overtures in coming weeks and seek to normalize ties with Paris as their top priority in the Euro-Atlantic — which would be essential to restore balance in Australia’s global relations,” said Hervé Lemahieu, director of research at the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank.
Albanese on Leakgate
France once considered Australia its top partner in the Indo-Pacific region.
Macron’s government has taken a more diplomatic approach to China than Canberra, which under Prime Minister Morrison became embroiled in ever-more hostile spats with Beijing. Still, before the sub snub, France used to take part in freedom-of-navigation patrols in the South China Sea, in close collaboration with Australia, as well as India and Japan, in the so-called two-plus-two format.
After Australia tore up its multibillion-euro French submarine contract last year, which then-Foreign Minister Le Drian called “a stab in the back” and Paris’ envoy to Canberra claimed was intentionally deceptive, that cooperation dried up. Relations became even more strained after a leak of a private text message sent by Macron to Morrison, in which the French president seemed to indicate some prior knowledge that the subs deal could have been on the rocks, contrary to his public statements. The Elysée blamed Morrison’s team for the unprecedented disclosure.
Albanese himself addressed the furor during his election campaign earlier this month, slamming his predecessor’s tactics. “I’ll tell you one thing I wouldn’t do … leak private text messages from other national leaders from our allies and that occurred, of course, with Emmanuel Macron with Mr. Morrison,” Albanese said in an interview. He added, “I think that will cause world leaders to really pause in their engagement with him. And that was a real concern.”
Whether Macron sends his new foreign and defense ministers — installed after a reshuffle last week — to reestablish the two-plus-two format with their Australian counterparts will be an indicator of how successful Albanese has been in his charm offensive.
For Albanese, the timing is crucial. While Russia’s war on Ukraine has taken center stage in European diplomacy over the past three months, successive countries at the helm of the six-month rotating presidency of the Council of the EU — France until the end of June, followed by the Czech Republic and then Sweden — have all planned major events to beef up the Indo-Pacific strategy adopted by the bloc last September.
“France is an important partner in the Indo-Pacific,” said the senior Australian official quoted above. “In order to secure our region, Australia must work together with key partners, including France.”
Lowy’s Lemahieu noted: “The Australians are well aware that the French are the driving force behind the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy. There is no enhanced cooperation with the EU in the region possible without Macron onboard.”
Trade back on track
Albanese’s other hot potato is a much-coveted free-trade agreement with the EU. Negotiations kicked off in 2018, but stalled after France sought to delay the process in retaliation for the AUKUS row. The talks have since resumed, but before Albanese’s election win, expectations of a deal being done this year were minimal.
Now, Australia looks to be out of the deep freeze.
Immediately after Albanese was sworn in as prime minister, European leaders appeared to warm to the neglected trade negotiations.
European Council President Charles Michel, for instance, congratulated Albanese on his win and said: “With EU being one of Australia’s major trading partners, [we] look forward to work on new FTA unlocking further trade potential.”
The Albanese government’s stance on climate change will also make striking a trade deal with Australia, which has the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions from coal in the world, easier for the EU. Brussels and Macron have put significant emphasis on climate and other sustainability standards in trade negotiations.
And while Morrison’s right-wing government pushed the U.K. to exclude climate commitments from a free-trade deal agreed with London last year, in his victory speech, Albanese promised to “end the climate wars” in Australia and remake the country as a “renewable energy superpower.”
That means the next session of EU-Australia trade talks — the long unlucky 13th round — will be more set to make progress this summer.
Stuart Lau reported from Brussels; Zoya Sheftalovich reported from Sydney, Australia.
Clea Caulcutt contributed reporting.
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