16 Apr 03. The FT reports that a fresh Anglo-French row has broken out over plans to allow the French government limited access to details of the new £2.8bn British aircraft carrier.
Officials close to both governments have put diametrically opposing interpretations on an Anglo-French agreement on carrier co-operation signed last week.
The agreement, first discussed by Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac at their Le Touquet summit in February, is a stepping stone to a common European defence policy. The political tensions over the agreement illustrate the bigger hurdle Mr Blair and President Chirac will have to surmount if their goal of pan-European co-operation on defence procurement is to be achieved.
British ministers are keen to promote co-operation with the French on defence procurement, partly in the hope of winning orders for Britain when Paris commissions a second aircraft carrier this summer. Geoff Hoon, the defence secretary, hopes his recent decision to force BAE Systems to share a £2.8bn contract for two British carriers with Thales, its French rival, will be reciprocated.
But the souring of Anglo-French relations over Iraq has rung alarm bells in government over the proposed extent of co-operation on carriers. The Ministry of Defence is concerned about the political repercussions of appearing to hand over military secrets to a country that refused to back the war.
MoD insiders said last night that Mr Hoon had ordered officials to intervene in the final negotiations on the Anglo-French agreement. A letter of intent between the two governments on carrier co-operation – signed at the end of last week – no longer committed the British to give the French open access to the confidential carrier agreement, the MoD insider said.
Instead, the agreement simply promoted co-operation between British and French companies and defence officials. “We are committed to nothing but keeping on talking,” an MoD insider said. “There may be significant benefits for the UK [in carrier co-operation] but there is no question of the French walking away with the crown jewels.”
But the agreement appears to give the Delegation Generale pour l’Armement, the French government procurement agency, somewhat greater access than this comment may imply. France will decide this summer on the broad outline of its plans to build a second aircraft carrier.
The French will choose one of three options: a nuclear carrier similar to the Charles de Gaulle, a 100 per cent French designed and built carrier, or a carrier developed through partnership with the British. As an inducement to go for the latter option, the agreement is understood to give the French limited access to the details of the British project.