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Britain, France Defense Partnership
Britain and France announced an unprecedented partnership on defense in a bid to allow two medium-sized powers to remain global players, officials and diplomats say.
IT IS SAID that British Prime Minister David Cameron, left, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy are set to announce an unprecedented defense partnership. Economic austerity appears to have achieved what years of diplomacy have failed to do by forcing the historic rivals to work together.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron have expressed their determination to open a new chapter in cooperation, although officials from both countries stress that national sovereignty will be preserved.
At the Franco-British summit in London, “this relationship will be taken to a new level – the closest it has ever been,” British Defence Secretary Liam Fox wrote in the Sunday Telegraph newspaper on Oct. 31.
He said the aim was to strengthen the relationship “at all levels,” from joint training to the acquisition of equipment and technology and information sharing, but added: “We will maintain an autonomous capability.”
A deal has been in the offing for some time. Sarkozy said this year he was ready to remove “taboos” and consider “concrete projects” to work with Britain.
That aim was firmed up when Cameron’s coalition government published a defense review in October against the backdrop of a deep program of cuts in public spending to tackle a record budget deficit.
The document says Britain intends to remain a “global player” despite cuts of up to 8 percent to the Ministry of Defence’s budget, and describes France as “one of the U.K.’s main strategic partners.”
Military officials and diplomats from both sides of the English Channel say this means a new era of cooperation in the search for “economies of scale.”
Britain and France together account for 50 percent of Europe’s operational capability, 45 percent of the continent’s defense budget, and 70 percent of the research and development crucial to fight the wars of the future.
Paris and London are however keen to reject any notion that their armed forces will become interdependent – especially in the highly sensitive area of nuclear weapons.
In the name of “improved interoperability” cooperation, British and French pilots would train on each others’ carriers, the Charles de Gaulle and Queen Elizabeth, by 2016 to 2020.
Among other topics, officials have also mentioned the possibility of cooperating on the training of crews and the maintenance of A400M transport aircraft as well as synchronizing nuclear submarine patrols.
This conveniently overlooks the acutely embarrassing collision last year between a French and British submarine in the North Atlantic.
French Defence Minister Hervé Morin is treading carefully, stressing scenarios where both countries would “disengage” in the event of “a conflict or a crisis where our respective interests diverge.”
France rejected taking part in the invasion of Iraq, with former President Jacques Chirac sharply critical of Tony Blair’s decision to commit British troops to the war.
Skeptics recall that 12 years ago, Blair and Chirac hailed their intention to cooperate on defense, but little came of it. The proposed joint construction of an aircraft carrier and a frigate were among projects that failed to see the light of day.
Etienne de Durand of France’s Institute of International Relations (IFRI) said the countries’ defense strategies have developed along sharply different lines.
While France has committed itself to building a European defense capability, Britain continues to favor its “special relationship” with the United States. But “the economic crisis has accelerated a rapprochement,” de Durand noted.
“If nothing is done, they will shrink beyond repair in volume and critical capabilities,” he said. The choice “is between entente or oblivion.”
Robin Niblett, director of the London-based foreign affairs think tank Chatham House, told AFP: “The time is ripe because the money really isn’t there any more.
“The U.K. wants to be global. And cannot afford to be. Perhaps Britain and France can back each other up a bit as the principal two countries that can be taken seriously [in Europe].”
DENIS HIAULT AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE