Kohl and Chirac, brothers in arms

Making peace on defence policy: European leaders may invite Britain to participate in three-way co-operation on security

France and Germany yesterday acknowledged that their joint defence projects needed to be reassessed, a move that could open up the opportunity for three-way co-operation with Britain.

The reassessment reflects growing budgetary strains on both countries and the impact of recent tensions over defence policy. They have also drafted a joint document on defence strategy to be finalised in six months' time.

The decisions, which follow months of Franco-German tension over France's proposed military and defence reforms, were taken during a meeting of the two countries' joint military council which met at the start of yesterday's summit in Dijon between President Jacques Chirac and Germany's Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

Military and defence issues supplied the focus for yesterday's summit, which was presented by Mr Chirac as an occasion to bury the hatchet after a period in which German officials havequestioned France's commitment to joint projects and European co-operation on defence and security generally.

A year ago Germany was surprised by Mr Chirac's decision to resume nuclear testing. This was followed by Mr Chirac's announcement to end conscription, and of swingeing armaments cuts.

Opening yesterday's summit Mr Chirac said that any misunderstandings that might have arisen no longer existed. Afterwards, however, he said:"Frankly, there was never any ill-feeling." He had earlier said that he wanted to "disabuse" journalists that there was any problem in Franco-German relations. "Nothing, I repeat nothing, will ever call this process [the French-German entente] into question," he said, to nods from Chancellor Kohl.

The German leader took a different tack on the question of misunderstandings, acknowledging that "sometimes we have differences, but then we sit down together and talk about them, as one would with one's children, wife or friends. Why should anyone think that there should be no differences between us?" But he insisted that Mr Chirac had told him of France's defence plans early on "in a friendly and correct manner".

On the subject of bilateral arms projects, Mr Chirac said that no project was in question, although some might be staged over a longer period. This appeared to be a reference to the Tigre helicopter programme, for which France has delayed and scaled down envisaged orders. His assurances, however, seemed to be limited to projects that are strictly bilateral, and would not affect the Future Large Aircraft project, from which France said it was withdrawing because it could no longer afford to participate.

It was not clear yesterday whether the planned review of joint projects would include the FLA.

When Michael Portillo, the Secretary of State for Defence, visited France on Monday, he revealed that France and Germany had agreed to admit Britain to what he described as the "so-called Franco-German arms agency".

However, Mr Portillo acknowledged that there were still difficulties over Britain's membership, disclosing the existence of "more conditions and strings than was at first clear".

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