Submarine crisis: can France block the free trade agreement between the EU and Australia?

Jean-Yves Le Drian does not take offense. Six days after the Australian announcement of the breach of the gigantic contract concluded in 2016 with France, providing for the delivery of twelve submarines, the lexical field, to say the least virulent and unusual on the diplomatic scene of the Minister of Foreign Affairs has not varied by one iota. It is indeed a “rupture of confidence in the alliances” of France and its allies, he insists again this Monday morning in the columns of Ouest-France.

After the Australian announcement, France decided to cancel a reception in Washington, supposed to celebrate the anniversary of a decisive naval battle in the US War of Independence. It had also decided to recall, historically, its two ambassadors to the United States and Australia.

Could France be tempted to activate other means of pressure? A case has resurfaced for several days: the negotiations conducted in Brussels with a view to concluding a free trade agreement between the European Union and Australia. The file, initiated in 2018, is still the subject of meetings at the European Commission. And Paris seems tempted at the idea of ​​weighing in to block the progress of the file.

It was Clément Beaune who was the first to put the subject on the table. “We have trade negotiations with Australia, I do not see how we can trust the Australian partner,” said the Secretary of State for European Affairs on Friday. To our colleagues from Politico, he added on Sunday that it was now “unthinkable” to continue negotiations with Canberra.

Brussels tempers

Does France only have the means to block or slow down the conclusion of the agreement? “The file is complex and this agreement concerns all of Europe and not only France,” comments LREM deputy for Moselle Ludovic Mendes, also rapporteur for the European motion for a resolution relating to negotiations for this agreement. I would also like to remind you that the negotiations also concern New Zealand, this aspect should not bear the brunt of the tensions that reign with Australia. “

On closer inspection, France seems to have a real power of obstruction from a technical point of view. And this is because of the procedure for negotiating trade agreements. “They are carried out by the European Commission on the basis of directives voted by the Member States, specifies Alan Hervé, professor of public law at Sciences-po Rennes and specialist in the subject. Once the negotiations are completed, the agreement must be signed by the European Council. The rule is that a qualified majority is necessary to validate an agreement. But in practice, an agreement has never been voted without a consensus of all the States. “

The professor cannot imagine for a moment the European Council signing a text against the French opinion. “We see it in other cases, such as Mercosur, even if France is not isolated. Without consensus, the files fall behind. “

Still, for the moment, France seems well isolated on the Australian issue and its neighbors seem to want to stick as far as possible. In reaction to the cancellation of the Franco-Australian contract, Berlin simply said it took “note” of the crisis situation. The deputy Nicolas Mendes recalls for his part that France will take the presidency of the European Union next January. “We are going to have responsibilities, we cannot lock ourselves in but we can make the European Union understand the need to put itself on alert on the basis of what has happened with France. “

An issue that France seems to have fully understood. During a press point on Monday, the Quai d’Orsay recalled that “the conduct of this negotiation is an exclusive competence of the European Commission, which has a mandate in this regard. “France, we continue,” will defend its interests within the framework of the mandate given to the Commission, as we do within the framework of all the trade negotiations which are conducted at European level “.

Certainly, the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen believes this Monday that France has been treated in an “unacceptable” way. But in Brussels, we are still a long way from changing the negotiation calendar. “At the end of the last round with Australia, which took place in June, it was agreed that the next one would take place in October, informed the Parisian Miriam Garcia Ferrer, spokesperson at the European Commission, in charge trade and agriculture. This is the current state of affairs. We are currently analyzing the consequences of the announcement of the Aukus (the United States / United Kingdom / Australia tripartite agreement) on this timetable. “

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