Australia’s opposition to a clause on human rights and weapons of mass destruction has halted negotiations for a new legally binding treaty with Europe.
European Union officials are perplexed by Australia’s objections to what they say is a standard clause in all its treaties. It allows either party to suspend the agreement if the other commits serious human rights abuses or spreads nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.
AAP has learned negotiations for the treaty were largely finalised in mid-2012 and a text was completed more than a year ago.
The human rights issue is now the only stumbling block in the way of a final agreement on the treaty, which would elevate Australia’s relationship with the 28-nation EU and possibly pave the way for a lucrative free trade agreement.
A senior European Union official says the clause is an essential element for all EU treaties and would only ever be invoked if Australia “really screwed up”.
“Australia took that very badly. They said `Why would you want us to sign that?'” the official told AAP in the Belgian capital Brussels this week.
Canada has had similar objections to the same clause being included in a proposed partnership agreement with the EU, but it’s believed the Harper government is beginning to soften its approach.
The EU official is hoping for a breakthrough with Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s government this year.
“We will sort it out, it just needs a bit of political oomph.”
An official attached to the European Parliament – which ultimately signs off on treaties – believes Australia’s sensitivity to international criticism of its treatment of asylum seekers could be the problem.
But this official says if that’s the case, it’s a misguided approach – the clause would apply to only the most serious of human rights abuses, like genocide, meaning Australia would be unlikely to ever fall foul.
Relations between Australia and the EU are currently governed by a so-called Partnership Framework, which is not legally binding.
Former prime minister Julia Gillard first proposed a binding treaty in October 2010 and negotiations began a year later.
While the text is not available, it’s understood the treaty would govern Australia’s relationship with the EU in a number of areas, including trade, investment and security. It might also mandate a regular schedule of meetings between leaders and ministers.
“That would set our relationship on to a more solid footing for the next couple of generations,” the EU official said.
Comment has been sought from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.