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UK, France ditch rivalry, sign defense deal

 French President Nicolas Sarkozy, center right, talks to British Prime Minister David Cameron as they arrive at Lancaster House in London for a summi...
 Chelsea's manager Carlo Ancelotti speaks during a press conference at their training ground in Cobham, England, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010.  Chelsea will ...

APTOPIX Britain France Defence Cooperation

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, center right, talks to British Prime Minister David Cameron as they arrive at Lancaster House in London for a summi...

Britain Soccer Champions League

Chelsea's manager Carlo Ancelotti speaks during a press conference at their training ground in Cobham, England, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010. Chelsea will ...

What would Napoleon or Lord Nelson make of this? Britain and France struck a historic defense deal Tuesday aimed at preserving military muscle in an age of austerity, pledging to deploy troops under a single command, share aircraft carriers and collaborate on once fiercely guarded nuclear programs.
The often skeptical neighbors insist an era of unprecedented cooperation is a pragmatic fit for two cash-strapped allies, though many question if the storied enemies of the battles of Agincourt and Waterloo can truly overcome centuries of mutual suspicion.
Following talks in London, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Europe's only nuclear-armed powers had set out plans to work closely for the next 50 years _ forming a joint rapid reaction force, sharing warhead testing facilities and tackling together the threats from cyber warfare and the militarization of space.
Cameron told his Cabinet the deal would save hundreds of millions of pounds (dollars) as Britain seeks to clear its national debts, while Sarkozy said believed the pact will help protect all of Europe.
"This is a decision which is unprecedented and it shows a level of trust and confidence between our two nations that is unequaled in history," Sarkozy told reporters, following a summit of key ministers from both countries.
Though British and French forces have fought together on fronts across the globe _ including during both World Wars and the enemy occupations of France _ the leaders insist the accord will signal the closest integration ever of their armed forces.
Under the deal, Britain and France will form a joint expeditionary force _ a pool of at least 5,000 troops, including special forces, able to deploy under a commander from either nation.
They will in the future share their two aircraft carriers, when Britain's new vessel comes into service in about a decade. Fighter jets will be able to land on carriers from either country, providing cover when one nation has its carrier in dock for maintenance.
To slash the hefty costs of maintaining their nuclear weapons, the nations will share specialist laboratories at the U.K. Atomic Weapons Establishment in Aldermaston, southern England, and a new center at Valduc, southeast of Paris.
British officials acknowledged the deal would involve closer cooperation than ever before on nuclear weapons, but insisted they would not divulge nuclear secrets.
"The result will make our citizens safer, more secure and better protected in the global age of uncertainty in which we now live," Cameron said.
The U.S. said the deal would secure the standing of two major NATO powers. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates had both recently raised concern over the impact of cuts to European defense budgets.
Last month, Britain announced an 8 percent cut to its annual 37 billion pound ($59 billion) defense budget over four years and confirmed that 17,000 troops, a fleet of jets and an aging aircraft carrier would all be lost to cuts.
France will hold defense spending at around (EURO)30.2 billion ($42.4 billion) next year, but must also tackle a troublesome national debt.
Skeptics claim the pact is little to do with new found friendship, but simply a practical response to budget cuts.
"A closer relationship between France and Britain is more, I think, out of obligation than desire," said Fabio Liberti, of the Institute of International and Strategic Relations in Paris.
Cultural tensions persist between the neighbors. Thousands of Britons enjoy homes in France _ and are often blamed for driving up house prices. Tens of thousands of French citizens work in Britain, and are often scorned for collecting large salaries in London's financial district. Stereotypes of snooty "frogs" from France and the U.K.'s supposed uncouth, beer-swilling "rosbifs" _ roast beefs _ live on.
France also remains prickly over the decline of the French language in the halls of diplomacy, and was horrified that Briton Catherine Ashton, the EU's top diplomat on foreign policy, has only a basic command of French.
At London's Eurostar train terminal, a railroad that crosses through the Channel Tunnel to link the British capital to France. retired teacher Pat Durose, 67, of Nice, in southern France, wondered if troop could overcome cultural rivalry and the language barrier.
"My question is, whose language wins?" she said.
Col. Tim Collins, who led a British battalion in Iraq, said French and British troops commonly stumbled over each other's language, hampering efforts at cooperation.
Though France and Britain worked closely in Bosnia and Kosovo, Paris opposed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and only rejoined the NATO command structure in 2009 after an absence of about 40 years.
Collins wrote in the Daily Mail newspaper that he remains skeptical miscommunication and mistrust could be overcome. "I hope I am wrong. I hope the mutual suspicion that has existed through the centuries has gone ... but I can't be sure of it," he wrote.
Some wonder aloud how Sarkozy would react if Britain demands help to defend the Falklands Islands, its territory in the South Atlantic and the subject of a brief war between the U.K. and Argentina in 1982.
"If you, my British friends, have to face a major crisis, could you imagine France simply sitting there, its arms crossed, saying that it's none of our business?" Sarkozy asked during a news conference.
Conservative lawmaker Bernard Jenkin said some in the U.K. fear the answer could be yes. "There is a long track-record of duplicity on the French part," he told the BBC.
Cameron and Sarkozy insisted both countries will retain the ability to launch military missions alone. Experts said London and Paris would likely also continue to compete for the attention of Washington.
"While it's true that the nuclear accord is a very important one, that's not necessarily the same thing as saying 'France and Britain have surmounted all of their differences, all their quarrels, all their history and all their culture," said Zaki Laidi, an expert in international relations at the Science Po school in Paris. "That would be a bit of an illusion."
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Associated Press writers Jenny Barchfield in Paris and Gillian Smith in London contributed to this report.


Updated : 2021-05-11 13:39 GMT+08:00