Britain, France embark on historic defence pact

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Britain and France usher in an unprecedented era of cooperation at a summit in London Tuesday with a deal to create a joint military force and share aircraft carriers and nuclear testing facilities.

British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy will sign two treaties which they say will allow both nations to remain global players while cutting defence budgets following the financial crisis.

Defence Secretary Liam Fox said the agreement was good for both sides, telling the BBC: "That makes perfect sense in a world where resources are tight but our interests are increasingly common."

The deal between the historic rivals includes a joint rapid reaction force of up to 5,000 troops deployable from next year; plans to share nuclear testing equipment by 2015; and the use of aircraft carriers from about 2020.

Both London and Paris have defended the plans, insisting their militaries will not lose the ability to act independently.

"I do seriously believe that this link-up with the French is in the long-term interests of both our countries," Cameron told lawmakers on Monday.

The French president's office said any measures on nuclear cooperation would be taken "in total respect of the independence of deterrent powers of the two countries."

The pact puts an end to centuries of rivalry and, at times, war, from the invasion of England by the French-speaking Normans in 1066, through to the 14th and 15th century battles for control of France and the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

The first treaty will cover a wide agreement on defence, from the creation of a new combined joint expeditionary force to sharing the use of aircraft carriers, the maintenance of transport planes and some joint procurement.

The new force will begin training next year and would be deployed on an ad hoc basis under a single commander, likely speaking English.

It will be "a combined joint expeditionary force -- not a standing military force but a pool of armed forces from both countries who train together," said a British official, who asked to remain anonymous.

The two countries will also share the use of their aircraft carriers from 2020. With each country operating only one carrier, they will be able to use the other nation's vessel when theirs is under maintenance.

Cooperation is also planned on the new A400m transport aircraft they are both buying, with plans under way to share maintenance and training.

The second treaty will cover plans to share technology in the testing of nuclear weapons, although officials stressed this would not see the two countries share nuclear secrets, nor the codes to their nuclear submarines.

Under the nuclear deal, Paris and London will test the safety of their nuclear arsenals in a joint facility in France, according to the French presidency.

A nuclear simulation centre will be built at Valduc, eastern France, which will work with a French-British research site in Aldermaston, southern England. Several dozen French and British experts will work on the project.

Despite their history, the British and French work alongside each other in NATO operations, and 12 years ago British premier Tony Blair and French president Jacques Chirac hailed their intention to cooperate on defence issues.

However, little came of it and the pair fell out spectacularly over the war in Iraq, which emphasised Britain's focus on US, rather than EU, relations.

However, Sarkozy said this year he was ready to remove "taboos" and consider "concrete projects" to work with Britain, while Cameron's coalition government also put bilateral operations at the heart of a recent defence review.

© 2010 AFP

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