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3rd Mar 2024

UK and France going own way on military co-operation

Britain is forging ahead on military co-operation with France, while warning about EU "interference" on defence.

The two countries are the EU's leading military powers.

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  • British Grenadier Guards cheering Queen Elizabeth II (Photo: Defence Images)

They spent €92 billion on defence last year (more than Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and Spain put together), according to Swedish NGO Sipri.

They are also the most hawkish. They took the lead in wars in Libya and Mali and they were keen to join US strikes on Syria.

"As shown from our joint operations in Libya and Mali, the UK and France are natural partners and have a key role to play in leading and shaping the defence and security of Europe," a British defence ministry spokesman told EUobserver on Tuesday (17 September).

In line with the 2010 Lancaster House Treaties, the British and French army, navy and air force regularly train together and some British officers serve full time on the French aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle.

They are "on track" to create a Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF) with France by 2016 and they plan to test its air component next month in an operation called Exercise Joint Venture.

For its part, the EU also has "battlegroups," or rapid reaction battalions put together by two or three states. But they have never seen action.

The Union is aiming to agree on joint procurement of some military hardware at a defence summit in December.

But here, France and the UK are also streets ahead.

They are already building a "Future Combat Air System," due in 2030, with manufacturers to send in proposals this month.

"Our defence co-operation has grown both in importance and scope since then [the 2010 treaties]," the British spokesman said.

He declined to say whether Britain favours bilateral co-operation over EU-level action.

The UK's official line is that British-French military integration will help to win wars whether they fight them together or as part of EU or Nato structures.

Some French officers are more outspoken, however.

Colonel Michel Goya, a teacher at the Institut de Recherche Strategique de l'Ecole Militaire in Paris, told EUobserver at the time of the Mali conflict: "If you have to react quickly to events, it's better to do it at a national or bi-national level."

Meanwhile, with Britain to potentially quit the EU in a referendum in 2017, it is hard to imagine that it will endorse a far-reaching military deal at the EU's December summit.

British defence minister Philip Hammond criticised the European Commission's ideas on defence reform earlier this month.

Speaking to arms firms at an event in London on 10 September, he said he backs the commission on "improving competition in the [EU] internal defence market, and supporting SMEs."

But he added: "Interference in the export of defence equipment and government-to-government defence sales; or the creation of … 'specific European standards for military products' represent a significant potential extension of the commission’s role and are not necessarily in the UK defence industry’s best interests - and we will resist them."

He promised to keep "a very careful eye on potential interference from Brussels" and to "protect" firms from EU "bureaucratic burdens."

France aside, Hammond also asked: "Should British industry, in fact, be looking across the Atlantic, to our closest ally, for our future industrial partnerships?"

A failed merger last year shows the limits of EU fellowship when it comes to jobs and national politics.

The UK, France and Germany in 2012 came within a hair's breadth of merging the UK's BAE Systems with Franco-German firm Eads to create a European military-industrial giant.

But German Chancellor Angela Merkel blocked the deal, in part because France declined to locate the new HQ in Germany.

For Judy Dempsey, an analyst at the Brussels-based think tank, Carnegie Europe, the bottom line was that Merkel feared losing German defence jobs in the run-up to German elections.

Amid Britain's euroscepticism, Dempsey noted in a recent paper that Germany is also a spoiler on EU defence.

"Of all the more recent German Chancellors, Angela Merkel is probably the one with the least interest in defence and security policy," she wrote.

"Having no security strategy of its own, Germany has discouraged the EU's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton from drawing up a new security strategy for Europe … [which] defeats any attempts within Nato or the EU to pool and share military resources in order to face ever-growing financial pressure," she added.

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