Defence Secretary Ben Wallace was grilled by MPs over the AUKUS boat deal between Australia, Britain and America
The diplomatic row between Britain and France over a submarine deal for the Australian navy deepened today as the French pulled out of a key defence meeting.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace was forced to deny the UK had engaged in “sneakiness behind the back” in securing a military pact with Washington and Canberra to build nuclear-powered boats without telling France.
The AUKUS military deal meant Australia scrapped an order for 12 French diesel-electric boats and will instead use British and American technology to build eight nuclear-powered subs.
But the move sparked fury in Paris, which ordered its ambassadors home from the US and Australian capitals.
The fallout continued today as negotiations between British and French ministers and officials on defence cooperation were axed.
No10 admitted the talks had been “postponed to a later date”.
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.”
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Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisted the UK and France have an “incredibly important, historic” relationship, founded on “shared values”.
Pointing to current military deployments, he added: “The UK and France are shoulder to shoulder fighting terrorism in the Sahel, we are shoulder to shoulder in the Baltic states, in NATO’s largest current mission.
“It’s an extraordinary fact – there is one other country in the world with whom we share a programme to do simulated nuclear testing.
“Which country is that? It’s France.
“The UK and France have, I believe, a very important and indestructible relationship.
“Of course we will be talking to all our friends about how to make the AUKUS pact work so that it’s not exclusionary, it’s not divisive and it really doesn’t have to be that way.
“This is just a way of the UK, the US and Australia sharing certain technologies because that is the sensible thing to do in the world in which we find ourselves.
“But that does not in any way mean that we wish to be adversarial towards anybody else, or exclusive or crowding anybody else out.”
However, the shelving of the negotiations showed French President Emmanuel Macron was still raging about the AUKUS deal.
French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian described the pact as a “stab in the back” which constituted “unacceptable behaviour between allies and partners”.
But, speaking at Defence Questions in the Commons, Mr Wallace claimed the UK and France were “joined at the hip” on many defence issues, telling MPs there was “no sneakiness behind the back” over a lucrative submarines contract.
The Defence Secretary told the Commons: “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.
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“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.”
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