A leaked text message appears to show that Emmanuel Macron was given warning that Australia could torpedo its $90billion submarine deal with France, as his extraordinary row with Scott Morrison reaches fever pitch.
The French president had claimed he was not informed about Australia’s plans to tear up the defence contract until moments before the AUKUS security pact was revealed to the world on September 15.
In a stinging rebuke at the G20 Summit in Rome, he called Scott Morrison a ‘liar’ for suggesting he was given prior knowledge the defence deal would be scrapped.
But in a chat believed to have been leaked by Mr Morrison’s office to show Mr Macron knew the agreement was on shaky ground, the French leader wrote: ‘Should I expect good or bad news for our joint submarines ambitions?’
The leak comes off the back of Mr Morrison issuing a stunning reproach to the French leader, lambasting him for ‘sledging Australia’ in a war of words which threatens to overshadow diplomatic negotiations in Europe.
Meanwhile, US president Joe Biden’s claims that he believed France had been made aware of the plans have been brought into doubt thanks to the release of a confidential 15-page document.
An awkward handshake in Rome between Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (right) and French President Emmanuel Macron (left)
A secret leaked text message (pictured) appears to show that Emmanuel Macron was given warning that Australia would torpedo its $90billion submarine deal with France
While Mr Morrison had conceded Mr Macron was not aware of negotiations with the US and Britain, due to their confidential nature, he says the French leader was told as early as June that Australia was consulting on other options for submarines.
Now the leak text message from September 13 appears to show Mr Macron knew the deal was not secure.
Mr Morrison responded to the message by trying to organise a phone call, The Sydney Morning Herald reported, but it never materialised.
The claims are in stark contrast to the version of events put forward by the French, with Mr Macron stunning reporters in Rome by calling the Australian leader a ‘liar’.
A fired up Mr Morrison hit back at the flurry of criticism on Monday, telling reporters at the BAE Systems shipyard in Glasgow ahead of the Cop26 meeting he ‘wouldn’t cop any sledging of Australia’.
Mr Macron made clear during his criticism of Mr Morrison that his comments were aimed at Australia’s leaders and not its people, for whom he has ‘a lot of respect and friendship’.
Emmanuel Macron (pictured at Cop26 in Glasgow on Monday) has repeatedly claimed Scott Morrison gave him no warning the French submarine deal was to be scrapped
‘This was a highly secure decision, a highly secure announcement, over which we had held these things incredibly tightly, not just for many months but in Australia’s case for more than a year,’ Mr Morrison said.
‘It was my obligation to advise him of that directly. He was clearly aware over some months that there were concerns, and they were responding to those concerns.
‘We had correspondence and other messaging during that period. And we decided, in Australia’s interest, not to go ahead.’
The prime minister made no apologies for cancelling the deal with the French Naval Group, saying it was in the nation’s interest.
‘We made the right calls for Australia. I don’t wish to personalise this,’ he said.
‘I must say the statements that have been made questioning Australia’s integrity, not me, I’ve got broad shoulders and I can take that, but those slurs, I’m not going to cop sledging of Australia.’
Scott Morrison is seen greeting UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday as they arrived at the Cop26 UN climate summit in Glasgow
An Australian Collins class submarine (front) and the UK nuclear-powered attack submarine, HMS Astute (rear) are seen at HMAS Stirling Royal Australian Navy base in Perth in October
Joe Biden had also claimed he had no idea the French were not told their deal to build Australia a conventionally-powered fleet of subs would be blown up in favour of nuclear-powered vessels in a deal with the US and Britain.
The US President expressed great concern about the handling of the secret plan, telling Mr Macron it was ‘clumsy’ and ‘not done with a lot of grace’.
‘I was under the impression that France had been informed long before that the deal was not going through,’ Mr Biden said at the G20 with cameras rolling.
‘I honest to God did not know you had not been.’
Mr Morrison would not be drawn on whether Mr Biden had dropped him in deeper trouble with the French.
But a 15-page document drafted by the White House National Security Council raises serious doubts about Mr Biden’s account of events.
Joe Biden (pictured at the Cop26 climate change conference in Glasgow on Monday) has claimed he thought France had been told their deal was dead – despite internal memos explicitly saying that Australia would not unveil their plans to France until September 16
The detailed plan negotiated by top officials from the US, Australian and Britain describes a timeline of how the world would be told of the new AUKUS security pact, The Australian reported.
The National Security Council document signed off on by Mr Biden’s closest advisers explicitly says that Australia would not unveil their plans to France until September 16 – the same day the AUKUS would be announced at a tri-lateral press conference.
It was clear the revelation would send shockwaves through the European powerhouse but the US had drastically underestimated just how furious the decision would make the French.
In response, Mr Macron recalled his ambassadors from the US and Australia kickstarting a bitter war of words and threatening Australia’s upcoming free trade deal with the European Union.
The US and the UK will help Australia build nuclear-powered submarines (pictured, the UK’s Astute class submarine HMS Ambush)
The G20 Summit in Rome (pictured, leaders on Sunday) descended into a war of words between the Australian prime minister and French president
Mr Morrison said one of the main reasons which contributed to the move away from the French Naval Group was their overblown budgets and failure to meet deadlines.
‘We were supposed to have gone through the Scope Two projects gate the previous December and those marks were missed,’ he said. ‘Ironically, had that been achieved, then quite likely all of this would have been moot.
‘That opened up a further opportunity for us to pursue our alternative, which I did, in Australia’s interest, and I make no apology for it.’
The prime minister and Mr Macron met for the first since the sub deal collapsed at the G20 Summit in Italy, awkwardly shaking hands before the French president went on a tirade moments after.
‘I have a lot of respect for your country. I have a lot of respect and a lot of friendship for your people,’ Mr Macron told a group of Australian reporters at the G20.
‘I just say when we have respect, you have to be true and you have to behave in line and consistently with this value.’
When reporters asked if Mr Morrison had lied, Mr Macron replied: ‘I don’t think, I know.’
French President Emmanuel Macron (pictured with wife Brigitte earlier this month) has accused Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison of lying
Mr Morrison claims he raised the subject at a private dinner following the G7 meeting in June.
‘At our dinner I gave the opportunity for the French to respond to the matters I had raised and that took place over the next few months,’ he said.
‘Now, we eventually formed the view that we would agree to disagree and the Attack-class submarine would not meet our requirements and we decided, finally, only in the days before the announcement of the AUKUS arrangement and going forward with that decision on nuclear submarines, was that decision finally made.’
After Mr Macron sent the text message on September 13 asking if he should expect good news or bad about the sub deal, Mr Morrison attempted to speak with the French leader via a phone call.
But no such call ever took place and AUKUS was deal was announced 48 hours later.
Scott Morrison (pictured arriving at Cop26 on Monday) has defended his actions over the French submarine deal
Why is Australia building nuclear-powered submarines?
Why nuclear submarines?
Nuclear submarines are powered by nuclear reactors which produce heat that creates high-pressured steam to spin turbines and power the boat’s propeller.
They can run for about 20 years before needing to refuel, meaning food supplies are the only limit on time at sea.
The boats are also very quiet, making it harder for enemies to detect them and can travel at top speed – about 40kmh – for longer than diesel-powered subs.
The first nuclear submarines were put to sea by the United States in the 1950s. They are now also in use by Russia, France, the United Kingdom, China, and India.
A senior US defence official told reporters in Washington DC: ‘This will give Australia the capability for their submarines to basically deploy for a longer period, they’re quieter, they’re much more capable.
‘They will allow us to sustain and to improve deterrence across the Indo-Pacific.’
Zack Cooper, a senior fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, said nuclear submarines would hugely boost Australia’s military capability.
‘They are going to be much, much more capable in the large, expansive ocean that is Australia has to deal with,’ he told the ABC.
Will Australia have nuclear weapons?
Scott Morrison made it clear that the nuclear-power submarines will not have nuclear missiles on board.
Australia has never produced nuclear weapons and signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 1973 which prevents non-nuclear states which don’t already have them from developing nuclear weapons.
Mr Morrison also said the Australia has no plans to build nuclear power stations which are widely used around the world.
‘But let me be clear, Australia is not seeking to acquire nuclear weapons or establish a civil nuclear capability,’ he said.
‘And we will continue to meet all our nuclear non-proliferation obligations.’
Are they safe?
The nuclear reactors are shielded from the rest of the submarine in a separate section to protect the crew from dangerous radiation.
The US has an excellent safety record with its nuclear-powered fleet although early Russian subs suffered a few accidents which caused 20 servicemen to die from radiation exposure between 1960 and 1985.
At the end of their 20-year lifetimes, the contaminated parts of nuclear reactors need to be disposed deep underground in special waste storage cells.
Anti-nuclear campaigners say any leaks of radioactive waste could lead to an environmental disaster.
Greens leader Adam Bandt called the submarines ‘floating Chernobyls’ in reference to the 1986 nuclear power plant explosion in the Soviet Union.
Australia needs to replace its six ageing Collins-class submarines.
In 2016 it signed a deal with French Company Naval Group to build 12 diesel-electric attack subs – but the parties were in dispute over the amount of building that would be done in Australia.
That deal has now been torn up in favour of nuclear powered subs aided by the US and UK who will provide the technology to Australia.
The West is becoming increasingly concerned about the growing assertiveness of China in the Indo-Pacific region where it has made huge territorial claims in the South and East China seas, clashed with Indian troops and repeatedly flown planes over Taiwan.
Mr Morrison wants Australia to have serious defence capability to deter China from encroaching in the Pacific and long-range nuclear submarines are just the ticket.
China has vastly built up its military in the past few years and now possesses six Shang-class nuclear powered attack submarines, equipped with torpedoes and cruise missiles.