France and Britain in talks on warship timeshare
Historic rivals and modern day allies France and Britain are in talks on pooling their naval strength, officials said Tuesday, after reports they might share a fleet of aircraft carriers.
Neither Paris nor London would confirm a report in the British press that the Royal Navy and the Marine Nationale might share carriers, but French officials said the defence ministers would hold a news conference on Friday.
"We're in a phase where we must absolutely synchronise our budget cuts so that, in the end, there's no loss in our military capacities," a senior French diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity.
"There was a lot of work over the summer. We are expecting a lot from the Franco-British summit in November. I hope there'll be real options," he said, adding that talks had been under way since June 18.
Another source close to the matter told AFP discussions were under way at a political level on possible cooperation in the use of aircraft carriers.
Separately, another French official confirmed that France's Defence Minister Herve Morin and Britain's Liam Fox would hold a news conference in Paris on Friday, but declined to comment on Tuesday's press reports.
Any formal announcement is likely to have to wait until the Franco-British summit in November, when President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister David Cameron will be able to study the options, officials said.
The British daily The Times reported that Paris and London plan to share the use of two British and one French aircraft carriers in order to save money while still maintaining a vessel always at sea for their common defence.
Britain's Ministry of Defence refused to confirm or deny the report.
"The defence secretary has made clear that tough decisions will need to be made but the complex process of a strategic defence and security review will be concluded in the autumn," a spokesman said.
"Speculation at this stage about its outcome is entirely unfounded."
Nevertheless, the reports followed a series of public suggestions that France and Britain are preparing an announcement.
Last week, in a keynote foreign policy address, Sarkozy said: "I heard the declarations of our British allies on bilateral cooperation with France. We are ready to discuss this without taboo.
"France is ready to undertake concrete plans to allow us to accomplish the toughest combat missions," he added.
France and Britain were hard hit by the international financial crisis and are struggling to fund their militaries -- the two most powerful in the European Union -- while both are stretched by war in Afghanistan.
Britain has two aircraft carriers, though there are times when both HMS Ark Royal and HMS Illustrious are in dock, and has ordered two replacements at a cost of 5.2 billion pounds (eight billion dollars, 6.4 billion euros).
France operates the powerful Charles de Gaulle, a nuclear-powered vessel capable of launching fixed wing aircraft, but it is alone in its class in the French fleet and often at home undergoing maintenance.
According to reports, if Britain and France are able to agree to time their patrols so that there is always one carrier at sea, London may be able to cancel or downgrade one of the replacements -- or sell it on.
For centuries the French and British fleets were the greatest rivals on the high seas, clashing regularly as the European neighbours built parallel global empires and raided each other's territory and shipping.
As recently as 1940 the Royal Navy sank a French fleet off the coast of Algeria -- killing more than 1,200 sailors -- amid fears it would fall under Nazi control after the World War II German invasion of France.
Since then, however, France and Britain have become allies within NATO and often conduct joint operations and exercises.
© 2010 AFP