Wallace attempts to downplay submarines row as France minister postpones meeting

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace arrives in Downing Street, London, ahead of the government's weekly Cabinet meeting. Picture date: Tuesday September 14, 2021.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace arrives in Downing Street, London, ahead of the government's weekly Cabinet meeting. Picture date: Tuesday September 14, 2021.
Victoria Jones
Max Parry

By Max Parry

Published: 20/09/2021

- 18:53

Updated: 20/09/2021

- 18:56

He insisted there was “no sneakiness behind the back”

The Defence Secretary claimed the UK and France are “joined at the hip” as he insisted there was “no sneakiness behind the back” over a lucrative submarines contract.

Ben Wallace sought to play down suggestions of a rift between the two nations, despite his French counterpart Florence Parly postponing a meeting with him as the international fallout from the contract row continues.

France has been left fuming after the UK, US and Australia agreed a new pact, known as Aukus, which includes the development of nuclear-powered submarines, a deal which tore up an agreement for Paris to supply Sydney with diesel-electric boats.

Mr Wallace and Ms Parly had been due to hold a bilateral meeting and address an event held by the Franco-British Council.

A spokesman for the Franco-British Council said: “The defence conference planned for September 23 has been postponed to a later date.

“The Franco-British Council regularly brings together the defence community in France and the UK and we look forward to holding our rearranged conference when a new date has been agreed.”

A defence source told the PA news agency that “the meeting is postponed, not cancelled” and highlighted the strength of the UK military relationship with “trusted allies” France, including operations in Mali and complex weapons development.

Speaking in the House of Commons, Mr Wallace said Australia had exercised its “right to choose” by forming a partnership with the UK and US.

He told MPs: “The United States and France are our closest allies.

“The United States is the cornerstone of Nato by far outspending and out-contributing than any other European nation on that security.

“It has been the guarantor of European security for decades and we should not forget that.

“When it comes towards France, I have an extremely close relationship with my French counterpart, I have met her only a month or two ago, I had dinner with her in Paris even months before that.

“We speak regularly...Britain and France, on many issues, are joined at the hip, complex weapons, counter-terrorism, both west and east Africa issues, and indeed more recently in places like Iraq and Syria.

“There is absolutely no intent here by the United Kingdom Government to slight, upset or drive a wedge between us and France.

“It may be that MPs would like to listen to the media but the fundamentals are that 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.”

SNP defence spokesman Stewart Malcolm McDonald earlier argued “Paris was deceived” over Aukus.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, speaking in New York, said the Aukus pact between Britain, the US and Australia was not designed to be “exclusive”.

It comes after Mr Johnson, in comments made on the plane journey to the US on Sunday, insisted Anglo-French relations were “ineradicable” after France suggested the UK was a lapdog to Joe Biden’s White House during a verbal attack.

Mr Johnson told a press briefing in New York on Monday: “The UK and France have, I believe, a very important and indestructible relationship.

“And of course we will be speaking with all our friends about how to make the Aukus pact work so it is not exclusionary, it is not divisive and it really doesn’t have to be that way.”

In a rare step among allies, Mr Macron ordered the recall of the French ambassadors to Washington and Canberra after Australia pulled out of its £30 billion submarine agreement with the French.

No such step followed for London, and France’s Europe minister Clement Beaune suggested it was because the UK was the “junior partner” which had accepted its “vassalisation” by the US.

But Mr Johnson insisted Britain and France have a “very friendly relationship”, which he described as being of “huge importance”.

“Our love of France is ineradicable,” he told reporters as he travelled to the UN General Assembly in New York.

“Aukus is not in any way meant to be zero-sum, it’s not meant to be exclusionary.

“It’s not something that anybody needs to worry about and particularly not our French friends.”

New Foreign Secretary Liz Truss touched down in New York alongside Mr Johnson as they both prepare to meet US President Joe Biden in Washington on Tuesday.

She will also attend the UN summit, where she will come into contact with the French, though the extent of any planned conversations was unclear.

French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian described the deal as a “stab in the back” and constituted “unacceptable behaviour between allies and partners”.

In an interview with France 2 television, Mr Le Drian accused Australia and the US of “duplicity, disdain and lies” and said the recalling of France’s ambassadors “signifies the force of the crisis today”.

He said allies “don’t treat each other with such brutality, such unpredictability, a major partner like France … So there really is a crisis”.

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