Britain sets sail with an old naval foe

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The Independent Online
Ending centuries of bitter rivalry, the Royal Navy and the French Marine Nationale are moving towards the kind of formal partnership which already exists between the air forces of the two nations.

A "letter of intent" on Franco-British naval co-operation was signed earlier this month by the First Sea Lord, Admiral Jock Slater, and his French opposite number. A detailed agreement may be signed by defence ministers in early June.

In Britain the agreement will be seen as an amicable conclusion to a tradition of conflict going back to the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and beyond. In France, it will be seen as an attempt to efface the memory of the Royal Navy's destruction of the French fleet in 1940 to prevent "friendly" warships falling into German hands.

The naval initiative, suggested by Britain, follows the creation last year of the Franco-British Air Group which co-ordinates joint operations, such as airlifts to trouble-spots. Given the long history of French and British maritime rivalry, a naval agreement may have far greater impact.

President Jacques Chirac arrives in Britain on 14 May on the first French state visit for 12 years, but the naval discussions are not expected to warrant more than a mention. However, a ministerial announcement is expected soon afterwards.

Ministry of Defence sources say they do not see the move as a "first step" towards a Franco-British or European naval force. But the arrangement fits into a pattern of increasingly formal links between European armed forces, which could ultimately mesh with political moves towards creating a European defence arm within the Nato alliance.

The Royal Navy already has well-defined procedures for operating with the German and Dutch navies.

Relations with the French are less well-developed, because France has not been part of Nato's integrated military structure for 30 years. France is considering rejoining Nato military operations, but only if the alliance develops an "identifiable and operational" European wing.

Apart from the air unit andnaval plans, Anglo-French military co-operation is thriving in a number of areas, despite the anti-European rhetoric of the Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Portillo. An Anglo- French nuclear committee is said to meet regularly and to have made considerable progress since President Chirac came to power last May, although both sides are secretive about the committee's agenda.

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