Too often, the debate on defence within Europe has been focused on what the EU should or should not do. Yet it has always been my view that defence must be a sovereign, and therefore an inter-governmental issue. When nations can benefit from co-operation without losing sovereignty, they should aim to do so – which is why this week will mark the beginning of a long-term commitment to closer defence and security links with France.
There are many reasons why this co-operation makes sense. We are Europe's only nuclear powers. We have the largest defence budgets and are the only two countries with real, large-scale expeditionary capability. We are both permanent members of the UN Security Council, and leading members of the G8 and G20. And there is no better time to deepen our relationship with France. Since President Sarkozy came into office we have seen a vigorous attempt to bring Europe and America closer together, and to bring France deeper into Nato.
France has now fully rejoined the alliance's Integrated Command Structure, and has almost 4,000 troops in Afghanistan – the fourth largest contingent, serving in places where the fighting is at times intense. Six Mirage jets based in Kandahar are providing close air support for coalition forces in the south, including the British in Helmand. The aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, with a British liaison officer already on board, will soon be arriving in the Indian Ocean to provide greater air power in the area, while the Royal Navy is working closely with the French off the Horn of Africa to combat piracy.
After this week's summit, this relationship will be taken to a new level – the closest it has ever been. David Cameron and President Sarkozy are right to seize this opportunity. It makes little sense for the two most powerful militaries in Europe to spend more than necessary on duplicate capabilities, which could be delivered in a more cost-effective manner. The aim of the summit, therefore, is to strengthen the relationship at all levels: joint training, bilateral co-operation on the acquisition of equipment and technology, improved inter-operability, and greater information-sharing.
This is not, I must point out, a repeat of Tony Blair's trip to St Malo, where he called for deeper military co-operation through the EU. Nor is it a push for an EU army, which we oppose. This is about achieving real capability and tangible results – and proving that co-operation in Europe doesn't always have to be on an EU level, but can be on a state-to-state basis.
As the Strategic Defence and Security Review made clear, our default position is to operate as a partner within one alliance or another. However, we do have unique national interests, and cannot always expect to depend on our partners when these are threatened. I want to make it very clear that we will maintain an autonomous capability to sustain a considerable and very capable military force in the field.
Maintaining a strong military is becoming more expensive at a time when budgets are under growing pressure. The solution is to exploit economies of scale, and increase co-operation where national security allows and sovereign capability is not jeopardised.
This isn't a plan that has been dreamt up since entering office. I have been calling for closer co-operation with France for years, and – like others in my party – made several trips to Paris to build relationships while in Opposition.
It was Henry Kissinger who said we cannot always assure the future of our friends, but we have a better chance of assuring our future if we remember who our friends are. A strong and capable France is in Britain's military interest. Closer links with France do not mean weaker links with Germany, or any other Nato partners. Nor will it jeopardise the Special Relationship with the United States. Quite the contrary: our partners in Nato want British and French forces to be as strong, capable and inter-operable as possible.
That is exactly what this new era of Anglo-French co-operation will achieve.