“Britain and France are and will always remain sovereign nations able to deploy our armed forces independently and in our national interests when we choose to do so.”
Prime Minister David Cameron, 2 November, 2010
Under the agreements between the PM and the French President, a combined joint expeditionary force will be created to train British and French forces, so they can to carry out operations together.
There will be co-ordination of aircraft carriers to ensure there is always a British or French vessel available for joint operations, and a new nuclear testing facility will be developed at Aldermaston in this country and Valduc in France.
The agreements will also see the two countries pooling resources in terms of training, maintenance and logistics for new planes they are both buying – and it means French fighter jets could be re-fuelled by British tanker aircraft.
At their joint news conference, David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy were asked what would happen if Britain faced a crisis in the South Atlantic, or France in West Africa, and one country turned to the other and asked to use its aircraft carrier.
The Prime Minister said: “Obviously we would only commit a taskforce if we jointly agreed on the mission.”
But that wasn’t really answering the question – which was not about joint taskforces, but how Prime Minister and President would react if they received a request for the other’s carrier.
The President responded: “”If you, my British friends, have to face a major crisis, could you imagine France simply sitting there, its arms crossed, saying that it’s none of our business?”
The implication was that France would look sympathetically at the British request.
But Bernard Jenkin, a Conservative member of the defence select committee, questioned whether France would make an aircraft carrier available for a mission like the Falklands.
He told the BBC: “We need to recognise that France has never and is never likely to share the same strategic priorities as the UK. There is a long track- record of duplicity on the French part. When it comes to dealing with allies, we should never be under any illusion. The French act in what they see as their strategic interests.”
Amid all of the bonhomie at the news conference, it’s pretty unclear what will actually happen in the future.
France was strongly opposed to the Iraq war, which Britain fought alongside the Americans. Supposing Britain becomes involved in a similar conflict one day, and the French oppose military action? How then would a French President treat a request for an aircraft carrier?
Imagine if French equipment is being maintained by the British and it’s needed urgently for a mission that’s unpopular in London and among the British . What sort of complications would that throw up?
Saving money is also an important factor. Mr Cameron said joint nuclear testing would save “millions of pounds”, but a Ministry of Defence spokeswoman told Channel 4 News she couldn’t be more specific because of commercial confidentiality.
Today’s joint declaration also said costs were expected to be reduced by “developing a common support plan for our future fleets of A400M transport aircraft” (the new planes both countries are buying) . Again, there are no figures.
And who’s to say that in the future, defence maintenance contracts won’t be awarded to British and French companies on the basis of Buggins’ turn (an expression first used by the First Sea Lord, John Fisher, in 1901)? In this case, rotation would become more important than cost.
Professor Malcolm Chalmers, an adviser to the former Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth who now works at the Royal United Services Institute, sums up: “The important thing is that this is a useful arrangement. It’s most likely to work if both countries are frank about their concerns about military independent capabilities and think through those scenarios and make sure they’re not so dependent on one another for national operations that it becomes unacceptable.”
As big defence spenders, in an age of austerity, it makes sense for Britain and France to pool their resources.
Mr Cameron was hard headed in his appraisal of the merits of a closer defence relationship with France, while President Sarkozy was more lyrical, calling the co-operation historically unique.
The two leaders are clearly comfortable with one another, and it’s easy to imagine the two of them reaching a mutually-beneficial compromise in the event of disagreement. This would obviously be more difficult with two leaders who don’t get along.
There will be tensions in the years ahead. Mr Cameron’s pledge that Britain and France will be “able to deploy our armed forces independently and in our national interests when we choose to do so” will be sorely tested when relations between the two countries are less convivial than they are today.
Relationships always involve disagreements: there’s no reason to think the latest Entente Cordiale won’t have its problems.