Leading Article: Entente cordiale in uniform

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ON THE FIRST occasion in recent history that the French and British went into battle on the same side, in the Crimea against Russia, the British general, seeing the enemy charging across the battlefield, remarked that the French were coming.

Anglo-French relations over the past thousand years have usually meant military confrontation rather than co-operation. The entente cordiale and subsequent alliances were frequently marked by misunderstanding or acrimony.

The plan to set up a joint planning cell for military co-operation in international peace-keeping and humanitarian operations is a bold step. It acknowledges that both countries see themselves as major players in such operations and, although bilateral, the plan may lead to greater co-operation under European or United Nations auspices.

After the Cold War the world has been ambushed by sudden crises requiring military intervention, as in the Gulf and Bosnia, or humanitarian aid, as in Rwanda. Often, as in Somalia, both are needed. Such crises are likely to multiply as small, messy conflicts erupt. The need for peace-keeping forces and guards for relief supplies is growing.

France and Britain are both powers with substantial and well- trained forces capable of fast, large- scale airlifts. They learnt to work together in the Gulf and Bosnia and co-operation in these operations has now grown into a more formal long- term arrangement. The plan is for France and Britain to set up a joint air command and pool their resources. Its weakness lies in the assumption that in such situations Paris and London have identical interests. Unilateral French intervention in Rwanda in June, where an Anglophone movement was overthrowing a Francophone government, demonstrated that at times even in remote places there are particular national interests.

The initiative is not concerned with defence of territory, either national or European. The suggestion that they organise joint nuclear defence has been ruled out. Britain's membership - and France's non- membership - of Nato's military structure are not affected. However, bilateral arrangements that grow piecemeal out of direct co-operation between two national armed services may lead to a more effective joint European command than an attempt to realise the Eurocorps concept at a stroke.