2011/03/31 - Natural Partners, Necessary Partners, UK-France Defence Co-operation

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Speech delivered by Minister for the Armed Forces at the Franco-British Council Defence Co-operation Conference, London on Thursday 31 March 2011.


Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak here today at the first annual defence co-operation conference organised by the Franco-British Council.

As I speak, as part of a broad and growing coalition which includes Arab countries, British and French forces are operating to enforce UN Security Council resolution 1973.

Both our countries agree that the action in Libya is necessary and right.

Together we chose not to stand aside as the Gaddafi regime brutalised its own people and threatened to return Libya to the status of a pariah state on Europe’s southern borders.

We took clear and decisive action to avert a humanitarian disaster in Benghazi and protect the people of Libya.

By working together we can help realise the legitimate demands of the Libyan people.

Too often in the past we have allowed the small differences between us to preclude action.

In these past two weeks, although the path has not always been easy, France and the UK have provided leadership at the UN, in the EU and in NATO, with our friends and allies, to bring a wide coalition together.

This is testament to the determination of both our governments to act in concert.

When it comes to security and defence in this globalised world, the real interests of our citizens are not in competition, but in partnership.

Today, I want to talk about why the Franco-British partnership is important to the national interests of both countries, and how this partnership supports rather than replaces or undermines the multi-lateral organisations to which we both belong.


This new era of partnership is needed for three distinct reasons:

First - in this globalised, volatile world the diverse and evolving risks to national security, are risks shared in common with our neighbours, our allies in Europe and further afield.

There is a shared exposure to strategic risk and therefore a convergence of strategic interest.

Second - no country can hope to resolve threats to national security and international stability acting in isolation.

The picture is too complex and the potential threats too widespread for unilateral action on all fronts to be effective.

Acting with partners provides the legitimacy, reach and resources that unilateral action cannot.

Third - maintaining a strong military is becoming more expensive and budgets are under growing pressure.

In the UK, we have had to make difficult decisions, not only to contribute to national deficit reduction which is the Government’s priority, but also to deal with the legacy of over commitment in our Defence budget.

Countries across Europe and indeed across the Atlantic, are seeking greater efficiency in defence budgets.

Partnerships can help provide economies of scale through collaboration or burden sharing where appropriate.

Against these criteria, the Prime Minister and President Sarkozy’s initiative for enhanced UK/France bilateral defence and security co-operation is a responsible and necessary course of action.


Of course, each country has unique national interests but we share significant strategic interests in this new era.

We are near neighbours with similar sized economies linked through the single-market and through thousands of years of exchange of people, goods and ideas.

Britain and France are parliamentary democracies with outward looking cultures, engaged in world affairs as permanent members of the UN Security Council, and both as leading members of the EU, NATO, the G8 and G20.

And we are of course nuclear powers with similar sized high-tech militaries and with the capability and, perhaps importantly, the willingness to project power to meet our global responsibilities towards international peace and security as well to our own national security when threatened.

Together we account for half of all spending on Defence in Europe.

In this new era, a closer Franco-British partnership is as natural as it is necessary.

And we are not starting from square one.

The conclusions of both the French Livre Blanc and the UK’s National Security Strategy and SDSR are strikingly similar.

We are able to build on a solid base of bilateral co-operation forged over many years and enhanced recently by our operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere, including now in Libya.

This has been made easier by the UK’s recognition that the European Union has a role to play in the field of security and defence and by French reintegration into NATO’s Command Structure.

The two treaties that Prime Minister Cameron and President Sarkozy signed in November set out a comprehensive programme of defence and security co-operation to be taken forward over the coming years.

These treaties mark a step change in our partnership.


I don’t need to spell out the details of these treaties to this audience, so let me dwell, today, on one aspect that goes to the heart of the step change - nuclear co-operation under the Teutates project.

As you will know, the two parties in the UK coalition Government have a different approach to the renewal of the current Trident system, but we are jointly pledged to maintain Britain’s nuclear deterrent.

The responsible stewardship of our existing nuclear weapons stockpile is vital work.

Under this new and groundbreaking arrangement, the UK and France will share facilities to maintain the safety of our independent nuclear deterrents.

Instead of building duplicate national facilities, we have agreed jointly to construct and operate a new Hydrodynamics Facility at Valduc in France and a new Technology Development Centre at Aldermaston in the UK.

And we have moved quickly on this work - the facilities will be operational by 2015, with the first UK experiment time-tabled for 2017.

In combining our scientific and engineering talent and in sharing expensive equipment, we can sustain the expertise and capabilities required as responsible nuclear powers and potentially save considerable sums of money.

And it will enable us to maintain the safety of our existing nuclear stockpile without breaching the conditions of the international treaties.

Let me stress that this does not threaten the independence of each country’s operational nuclear deterrent.

This co-operation does not involve the sharing of any nuclear deterrent capability such as submarine patrols.

But it does mark a willingness to co-operate in depth in an area that has traditionally been taboo.

As a Liberal Democrat Minister in this UK Coalition Government, I have the freedom to explore and argue the case for an alternative successor to the planned replacement of Trident.

This is not Government policy, but I and my party colleagues would certainly be willing to explore the options for the UK and France to plan our successor programmes in closer co-ordination including, in the longer-term, the case for deeper co-operation on operational nuclear deterrence.


The UK has of course a extraordinarily close relationship with the United States on this and other defence matters.

So let me be clear.

This enhanced partnership with France does not diminish the close bilateral relationships we have with other partners in Europe and beyond.

The US-UK Mutual Defence Agreement is unaffected.

Our close defence co-operation with other allies, for example the UK-Netherlands Amphibious Force, is unchanged.

And the commitment of both France and Britain to the United Nations, to NATO and to the EU is undiminished.

In fact, we need multilayered security so that we can respond using the right means for the right occasion - through multilateral organisations wherever possible - but also through coalitions, through bilateral relationships - and of course we must reserve the right to act unilaterally where required.

But let me set out why we have chosen at this time to drive Franco-British defence co-operation through a bilateral relationship, in a way that is complimentary to NATO and the EU.

As Alain Juppe said recently, NATO is “currently the only credible military alliance in the world.”

It has been the bedrock of our collective security for over 60 years.

But it is inevitable in the years to come that a significant proportion of US attention will be turned towards the Pacific.

So if we are to retain the vitality of NATO, Europeans must up their game when it comes to the military capability that they are able to deploy and the political willingness to do so.

This will have the joint effect of continuing US willingness to invest in NATO, and provide independent means to act, including through the EU, should NATO choose not to.

The EU has made progress in developing the institutional arrangements that increase its ability to react to an international crisis.

But the twelve years since Saint-Malo has seen disappointing progress in generating the kind of deployable forces that we will collectively need in the future if Europe is to match its economic role in world affairs, with influence on defence and security.

The drive to improve European capability through NATO has been similarly slow.

Only 5 of the 28 NATO member states, 2 of those 5 being France and Britain, meet the NATO criteria of 2% of GDP being spent on defence spending.

Just as I am proud of the UK Coalition Government’s efforts to meet it’s international responsibilities when it comes to the UN target on aid, so I am determined that we continue to meet our responsibilities to NATO.

When national budgets across Europe are being squeezed, our taxpayers rightly expect the money we spend on defence and security to achieve real effect.

We do not have the luxury of unlimited political energy or finances to indulge in duplication or institutional empire building.

We have to prioritise to achieve better interoperability, capability and efficiency to ensure that we get more benefit out of our limited resources.

Britain and France have similar levels of investment, similar levels of capability and a similar willingness to deploy that is not matched, at present, by most other European partners.

But we are not alone in Europe in seeking new building blocks to strengthen our Defence.

The Nordic Grouping’s co-operation through NORDEFCO shares the ambition to grow capability and spend money more efficiently.

Intrinsically, defence co-operation agreements among members of NATO or the EU have the prospect of improving the military capabilities available to both those organisations.

If the UK-France partnership can provide a roadmap for others to strengthen their capability by working with each other in similar ways it will be to the benefit of both NATO and the EU.

It may even kick-start the growth of greater military capability and co-operation in Europe in a way that St Malo and subsequent initiatives have yet to do.

The drive of Britain and France to strengthen bilateral defence co-operation need not be exclusive in the long-term.

It should not, and does not, stop us working with others who are ready to invest in the same kind of deployable capability that the UK and France possess - but let me stress that willingness to deploy is the key.

The bottom line is this - those who spend the money control the process and those who have the political will take the lead.

But as we move forward in this way we may see the emergence of a core of European countries acting in concert with the will and the way to drive the process of capability improvement and efficiency in European Defence.

I personally am relaxed about whether this happens through coalitions of the willing or through enhanced co-operation.

I read with interest a recent report by Ben Jones published through the EUISS on Franco-British defence co-operation, and I agree with much of his analysis.

But I disagree with the conclusion that the relationship between the new UK/France Treaties and the EU’s CSDP is ‘enigmatic’.

It is not - we have been clear.

This is not St Malo 2.

This is a bilateral agreement between the sovereign nations of Britain and France.

Look, I am a Liberal Democrat.

I am pro-European, and I support Defence co-operation through the EU.

I do not share the ideological aversion that some of my Conservative colleagues in Parliament have when it comes to CSDP.

But, I am a pragmatist and a realist.

I believe in what works and what is shown to work.

For pro-Europeans this new partnership with France is win-win, win-win.

Win for the tax payers of both Britain and France.

Win for the military capabilities of our respective countries.

Win for the capabilities available to NATO.

And win for the capabilities available to the EU.

In this way bilateral co-operation must surely enhance multilateral co-operation.


In conclusion Ladies and Gentlemen, we live in a world in which isolation is neither splendid, nor optional.

We have no choice but to look outward, and to look to our friends.

To adapt Antoine de Saint-Exupery:

Amitie, ce n’est pas se regarder l’un a l’autre, c’est regarder ensemble dans la meme direction.

President Sarkozy and Prime Minister Cameron have been leading the way.

But we will need to embed cultural and behavioural change in the defence and security apparatus of both countries, because reticence, and dare I say suspicion, still sometimes remains.

This requires leadership from the top, clear direction through the chain of command, and above all familiarity through joint working.

It is said in the Ministry of Defence that ‘everyone has a friend in Washington’.

We need to move to a position where everyone has un amis in Paris too.

Because the national interests of both Britain and France demand it.

And because the benefits of our partnership will be felt in NATO and Europe too.