This may go down as the week in which Australia rediscovered its common bonds with Europe.
The horrific Paris massacres of Friday November 13 have highlighted deep emotional ties, like no other event in contemporary times. Two days later, Australia’s decision to negotiate a free trade agreement with Europe highlighted economic opportunities that have long been neglected.
At face value, the horrors of terrorist attacks and the prospect of lucrative trade arrangements have little in common. In fact, they are intimately connected, as political leaders on both sides have made clear. Australia and Europe are rediscovering old civilisational roots as they grow increasingly concerned about the sanctity of the rules-based international order.
The reason that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull went out of his way to visit Europe’s most consequential leader, Angela Merkel, is that Europe is understood to be one of the pillars holding up the global security and economic order. Conversely, the reason Merkel made a state visit to Canberra a year ago is that she sees Australia as a crucial partner in preserving that order in Asia.
Security and economic interests are intimately connected – connected by a shared commitment to freedom and rule-of-law. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and European Commission President Jean-Claude Junker made these links clear when they used a single joint statement on Sunday to initiate FTA negotiations, deepen security and defence ties, establish a EU-Australia Leadership Forum and find common ground in the fight against climate change.
They all boil down to common values:
“We are determined to defend our common freedoms and values and we are jointly committed to drive the counter-terrorism agenda, including in the G20. We agreed today to deepen the EU-Australia relationship which is rooted in our common interests, values and heritage…. ”
The statement referred not only to an FTA but also a long list of regional and global challenges including Syria, Iraq, Da’esh, eastern Ukraine, Crimea and climate change. The South China Sea wasn’t mentioned, on this occasion, but it was certainly at the forefront of Australian minds.
On Monday Mr Ric Wells, Deputy Secretary of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade addressed a forum on EU-Australia Relations at Melbourne University. He emphasised how Australia and the EU were on the same side of a fight to preserve the values, norms and institutions which underpin all of our economic and security interests.
Revealingly, his talk began with the “appalling attacks in Paris”, segued quickly to praising the EU’s recent criticism of China’s “militarisation” of the South China Sea, and then moved seamlessly to the benefits of trade liberalisation.
European Union Ambassador to Australia, Sem Fabrizi was in full agreement. “The parts of the puzzle are falling into place,” he said. “Trade and security cooperation is deeper, wider and forward-looking.”
As Wells told the forum: “It’s very easy to understate the importance of shared values.”