Macron looks beyond submarines to forge closer ties with Australia

Forging closer ties to advance security, trade and strategic interests will be at the forefront of Franco-Australian talks during the French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Australia on Tuesday.

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The three-day visit from May 1 will be Macron’s first to Australia as president and, in contrast to his recent trip to Washington, it is likely to be far lighter on pomp and grandeur.

Macron will meet with the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to discuss further cooperation on security in the Asia-Pacific region, climate change and a greater commitment to cultural exchange.

The French president’s trip comes at a time of strengthening ties between Australia and France, which received a major boost in December 2016 when the two countries signed a submarine deal worth €32 billion. Australia awarded the contract to the Naval Group (formerly DCNS), a French naval company, to build a fleet of diesel-electric submarines.

The importance of Macron’s visit, however, goes beyond simply plugging submarines.

Talk of opportunities to bind the countries more closely was first publicly broached during a visit by Turnbull to Paris last year. Macron told a press conference then that the submarine deal was “not simply a contract” but had elevated the two countries’ broader economic relationship to its highest level ever.

The elevation of the Franco-Australian relationship comes as US President Donald Trump continues to pursue both protectionist and isolationist policy agendas. In March, trade officials from both the EU and the US hit out at plans by Washington to slap tariffs on imported steel and aluminium. With Trump’s tariff plan in the works along with his earlier decisions to withdraw the US from two global trade agreements – the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), including the EU and the Trans-Pacific trade deal (TTP), including Australia – France and Australia have, arguably, never had a higher stake in furthering their trade interests.

Trump ditches deals

In January 2017 Trump said he would abandon the TTP ending a United States foreign policy push, begun under Barack Obama, to create a free trade zone with the Pacific rim. It initially dealt a blow to Australia’s efforts to increase and capitalise on existing trade in a market that includes 10 other nations – Japan, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

Although the accord – newly named the TPP-11 – was signed on March 9 without the US, Turnbull has continued to advocate for Trump’s return to the deal that in its original form is estimated to be worth €251 billion in global trade. Though last February, Turnbull’s efforts proved fruitless when at a joint press conference in Washington, Trump declared that TPP “was a bad deal for the US” and that he preferred “to be able to negotiate with one country”.

Macron has made his own attempts to persuade Trump to reconsider working with the EU on multilateral agreements and to shift away from an “America First” approach.

However Macron’s powers of persuasion are unlikely to revive the failed TTIP trade agreement between the EU and the US, despite what observers have labelled as France’s “special” relationship with the US. Trump, who reneged on the proposed pact not long after he came to power, has retained his protectionist stance. While the deal’s collapse put the EU trading bloc offside, it managed to replace it with another free trade deal, CETA, which it signed with Canada.

Australia seeking further European ties

The EU could benefit from France’s burgeoning new alliance with Australia if the far-flung Asia-Pacific nation succeeds in its bid to enter a free trade agreement with the union.

Turnbull has already talked of striking a free trade agreement between Australia and the European Union by the end of 2019, calling it “a realistic but ambitious project”.

Just ahead of Macron’s visit, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told reporters that Australia was anxious to deepen ties with other European countries, reaffirming its goal to trade with the EU.

Reciprocal trade between Australia and the EU was €60 billion in 2015-16, making it Australia’s second largest trading partner as well as its largest source of foreign investment.

A removal of trade barriers would be a boon to Australian exporters, including its growing services sector, which did business with Europe to the value of €6.5 billion in 2015–16.

Opening markets between Europe and Australia has added economic merit given Britain is poised to leave the EU and Macron is on a mission to save the European project in the face of growing political and economic fault lines.

While Australia is expected to warmly welcome the French president, relations between the two countries have not always been cordial. They hit their worst when in 1985 French intelligence agents blew up a Greenpeace vessel, the Rainbow Warrior, in Auckland harbour. Although the bombing occurred in neighbouring New Zealand, many Australians considered it an act of terror, and within their backyard. Ties had weakened even earlier during France’s nuclear weapons tests in the Pacific that began in 1966 and only ended in 1996.

With the current climate of geopolitical instability, an increasingly isolationist US foreign policy and threats to the foundations of the European project all preoccupying the French presidency, the ties forged with Australia could just reinvigorate political capital – and faith – in global trade.