Britain and France on verge of ambitious defence partnership

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Britain and France are on Tuesday to announce an unprecedented partnership on defence in a bid to allow two medium-sized powers to remain global players.

Economic austerity appears to have achieved what years of diplomacy have failed to achieve by forcing the historic rivals to work together.

President Nicolas Sarkozy and 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".

A Franco-British summit in London on Tuesday will hammer out a remarkable package of pragmatic measures between two countries whose history is scarred by battles and fierce rivalries, officials and diplomats say.

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 "Strategic Defence and Security Review" against the backdrop of a deep programme of cuts in public spending to tackle a record budget deficit.

The document published on October 19 says Britain intended to remain a "global player" despite cuts of up to eight percent to the Ministry of Defence's budget.

It describes France as "one of the UK's main strategic partners" and promises to "strengthen the relationship at all levels, and where possible, develop future military capabilities in complementary, cost-efficient ways."

Military officials and diplomats from both sides of the English Channel say this means a new era of "bilateral cooperation" in the search for "economies of scale".

Britain and France are the region's main military powers, accounting for 50 percent of Europe's operational capability, 45 percent of the continent's defence budget and 70 percent of the research and development crucial to fight the wars of the future.

Put together, the two countries account for a critical mass.

Paris and London are however keen to reject any notion that their armed forces will become "inter-dependent" -- especially in the highly sensitive area of nuclear weapons.

In the name of "improved inter-operability" cooperation, British and French pilots would train on each others' carriers, the Charles de Gaulle and Queen Elizabeth, by 2016-220.

The strategic review calls for information sharing, logistic cooperation, and joint training programmes. It also calls for efforts to develop together a stronger defence, industry and technology base that would be globally competitive.

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 synchronising nuclear submarine patrols.

This conveniently overlooks the fact that a French and British submarine collided in the North Atlantic last year, to the acute embarrassment of both countries.

French Defence Minister Herve 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 firmly rejected taking part in the invasion of Iraq, with then president Jacques Chirac sharply critical of Tony Blair's decision to commit British troops to the war.

Sceptics recall that 12 years ago, Blair and Chirac hailed their intention to cooperate on defence, 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' defence strategies have developed along sharply different lines.

While France has committed itself to building a European defence capability, Britain continues to favour the route of its so-called "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 capabilites," 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 UK 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)."

© 2010 AFP

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