2 Nov 2010

UK and France sign historic defence deal

As the UK and France agree to share military capabilities including aircraft carriers, a defence expert tells Channel 4 News he is surprised at the “sexy” top-level deal.

UK and France plan military co-operation (Reuters).

Prime Minister David Cameron and the French President Nicolas Sarkozy signed the treaties, aimed at maintaining both French and British military strength by working together, in London today.

Prime Minister David Cameron said: “Today we open a new chapter in a long history of co-operation on defence and security between Britain and France…The result will make our citizens safer, more secure and better protected in the global age of uncertainty in which we now live.”

President Sarkozy added: “This is a decision which is unprecedented and shows a level of trust and confidence between our two nations which is unequalled in history…In France, sovereignty is as touchy an issue as it is in Britain. But together, we will be stronger, together we will do better, together we will better defend the values that we share.”

This is a decision which is unprecedented and shows a level of trust and confidence between our two nations which is unequalled in history. French President Nicolas Sarkozy

The key components of the treaty include co-ordinating aircraft carriers to ensure a British or French vessel is always available; creating a Combined Joint Expeditionary Force training British and French troops to deploy on operations together; and developing a new nuclear testing facility at the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston and its French counterpart at Valduc.

The agreement to share resources comes as both France and the UK look for national spending savings. Two weeks ago David Cameron announced 8 per cent cuts to the UK defence budget.

Both Mr Cameron and Mr Sarkozy stressed the collaboration merely formalised age-old co-operation between France and the UK, the two biggest defence budgets in Europe.

And Mr Cameron moved to stave off criticism that the plan would lead to a “European army”.

“This is not about a European army. This is not about sharing our nuclear deterrents. 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,” he said.

A new era in defence 
There will be much fanfare about a new era, and much detail about how French aircraft will be able to take off and land on British aircraft carriers and vice versa, writes Channel 4 News International Editor Lindsey Hilsum.

But the real question is, are the two countries in this together for the same reason? Certainly, both need to find a way to maximise their dwindling defence budgets. The 8 per cent cut in the British defence budget announced last week leaves Britain exposed, notably with aircraft carriers but no aircraft. The French say they must save US$1.8 billion from their defence budget over the next three years.

But the two governments justify the new collaboration in contrasting ways: the French see it as a way of maximising European power as an alternative to both the Chinese and the US. The British see it as a way of reinforcing Nato, and backing up the US better.

Read more on Britain and France sharing defence capabilities from Lindsey Hilsum

Mr Cameron said the co-operation was based on a “hard-headed” assessment of the UK national interest.

“Britain and France are natural partners,” he said. “Both have the willingness and the capacity to play a part in world affairs.”

He said it was important to remember that the UK had only deployed troops by itself twice in the last 30 years: in Sierra Leone and in the Falklands.

In the longer term, France and the UK will also work together on a range of programmes, including satellite communications, cyber security, and the development of new missile systems, submarine technologies and unmanned aerial drones.

Mr Cameron said: “Britain and France have a shared history. Two World Wars, and our brave troops are fighting together every day in Afghanistan. But let me say the treaty is pragmatism not just sentiment…bold important steps which I believe will make our sovereign nations safer.”

Surprise at "sexy" military sharing 
One defence expert - who has dual French and English nationality - told Channel 4 News he was "surprised" by how high brow and strategic the initiatives included in the Anglo-French defence deal are.

Alastair Cameron, head of the European Security Programme at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), said: "What we have been expecting were very cautious steps on practical co-operation. It's not that that is not important, but it would be things that are less, in media speak, 'sexy' than aircraft carriers or nuclear capabilities. We have gone from practical, steady as she goes, to a quite substantial announcement."

He said the arguments for sharing costs and efficiencies to maintain military capability, in an interdependent relationship, were "compelling". He added: "We have co-operated with France for some time. The co-operation in the Balkans was very strong, and in the air in Kosovo, as well as Afghanistan."

But the agreement did not represent the UK shunning America, he added.

"There are plenty of people in the French administration who want to see this as the UK turning away from the Special Relationship with the US and the UK having no alternative than Europe. But that is not there. Actually, the bilateral defence agreement between France and Britain could encourage transatlantic co-operation for France."

He said the treaties represented two things - both a practical working relationship and then some very high-end, visible co-operation on a strategic level.

"They are not sharing the sovereignty on national assets," he said. "That's an area of national pride, and security. But by going to this level they have shown they are not afraid of the 'European army' headlines, which is very positive for the defence relationship in the future, which may be at many more levels than just this morning."


Shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy said he supported the co-operation plan.

“We share common threats with countries such as France, from terrorism to privacy to cyberattack. Deepening military ties is an essential part of modern defence policy.

“Interdependence, however, is different from dependence, and binding legal treaties pose some big questions for the Government.

“We know British aircraft carriers won’t have a strike force on them for a decade. Is today’s treaty going to usher in an era where we are reliant on our allies to fill in the gaps in the Government’s defence policy?”

Our live blog canvassed opinion on the defence deal as it happened – take a look back below.

LIVE BLOG: Cameron and Sarkozy