By Richard Norton-Taylor
Amid all the doom about the world economy and the Eurozone in particular, it is time for pragmatists to rise up and lift the gloom. On his first official visit to Britain, French president Francois Hollande, was honest enough to speak about different countries in the EU travelling at different speeds.
Europe à la carte is hardly a new concept. There is no better area in which to pursue it, certainly as far as the UK and France is concerned, than defence. The two countries may still be locked in tense competition to supply India with a new fighter, with BAE Systems and the other manufacturers of the Eurofighter/Typhoon offering to drop the price in a desperate attempt to wrench the deal, estimated to be worth $20bn, from France’s Dassault, producer of the Rafale. (The Rafale performed better than the Typhoon, originally designed as a cold war dogfighter, over Libya last year.)
But this demonstrates the potentially healthy appetite for investment in military hard (and soft) ware, something which other EU countries, including Germany and Sweden for example, could share. (There is also an outstanding and long overdue need to rationalise and restructure both Europe’s defence industries and military procurement).
General Sir David Richards, chief of Britain’s defence staff, and Britain’s head of the army, General Sir Peter Wall, do not miss an opportunity to emphasise the importance of close cooperation with Britain’s European allies, though the points seem to be lost and largely go unreported. Only this week (thu july 12) Richards in evidence to the Commons defence committee stressed the need to “interact” with the UK’s allies.
UK defence secretary Philip Hammond said recently that Britain needed to work “closely with partners to operate logistics more rationally”, as he put it, “looking to others to provide the tail, where Britain is concentrating on providing the teeth.”
The message is clear even though ministers do not dare trumpet it: Britain wants to continue to take a major role in military conflicts – deterring as well as fighting in them – but if only for financial reasons it needs the help of its European partners.
The argument becomes strategic at a time the US turns its back on Europe and looks increasingly towards Asia and the Pacific. The National Security Strategy (NSS) parliamentary committee of MPs and peers this week accused ministers and their close advisers of avoiding “fundamental questions about the UK’s role in the world, and its relationship with the USA”, urging them to be “more candid” in facing up to difficult questions.
The US shifts its resources and interests to the Pacific, yet there is no outward sign the British government has got the message, even though it continues to insist that the UK’s defence policy remains founded on the Atlantic Alliance.
Independent observers with access to top policy-makers warn that what the European allies, including the UK, are up to, or think, now matters little in the corridors of Washington DC. It is increasingly clear, these close observers say, though Whitehall policymakers dare not acknowledge it, not publicly at least, that British interests, as I have commented before will lie more and more in Europe, the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
So back to France. During the French president’s trip to London (and to Windsor where he saw the Queen) officials announced that on 24 July in London Hammond and Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French defence minister, will sign agreements to research and develop unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), fast becoming a key to modern conflict and warfare. And in a remarkable and unprecedented move, Hollande asked the British government to appoint a senior official to join the team in Paris preparing swingeing cuts in the French defence budget. He has also asked Berlin to appoint a German official to join in the exercise.
The British traditionally blame the French, and other continentals, for being too ideological, not pragmatic like themselves. The French have often said the opposite may be true. It may indeed.
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