Britain, France Sign Defense Pact


French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron exchange copies of treaty. (Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images)

At a moment when there’s a growing consensus in Washington that U.S. defense dollars will level out or shrink, two of America’s closest European allies have joined together to take on the issue of military spending in the midst of budget austerity.

In London on Tuesday the leaders of Britain and France agreed to a sweeping 50-year defense and security accord that covers a range of programs from nuclear cooperation and sharing aircraft carrier capability to a combined joint expeditionary force that could intervene far beyond Europe’s borders.

Given the sometimes-contentious relations across the English Channel (a recent example being sharp clashes over the war in Iraq), Prime Minister David Cameron and President Nicolas Sarkozy emphasized at their joint press conference that their nuclear deterrents would remain independent, and that the agreement was not paving the way for a European army separate from NATO.

The two leaders have both mounted domestic austerity campaigns. In Britain, that included an 8 percent cut in the $59 billion defense budget; in France, a decision to cap military spending at $43 billion. The two countries have the world’s third and fourth largest defense budgets and account for half of all military spending in the 27 nation European Union.

The effusive language used by the prime minister and president was keeping with a big moment:

“Today we open a new chapter in a long history of cooperation (going back to the Entente Cordiale at the beginning of the 20th century) between Britain and France,” Cameron said.

“Britain and France, who have taken such a bold decision, who have pooled their capabilities at the service of one and the same policy is a historic event which, furthermore, is going to enable us to make savings,” Sarkozy declared.

So far, there’s been no official comment from the Obama administration, but the accord is expected to diminish concerns voiced by both Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the British defense review last month.

And given the centuries-long cultural and historic differences between the neighbors, who were at war as recently as the early 1800s, a few dissenting voices inevitably surfaced.

The Associated Press quoted Bernard Jenkin, a member of the House of Commons and part of Cameron’s Conservative party, as saying, “There is a long record of duplicity on the French part.” And The New York Times quoted the head of the ultra-right French National Party, Marie Le Pen, renewing her attack on Sarkozy for reversing President Charles de Gaulle’s 1966 break with the NATO military command, saying “It is clear that the objective of this accord is to shift our defense to Anglo-Saxon control, and obviously everyone will understand that behind Great Britain there is, of course, the American big brother.”