Saturday, February 21, 2004

One of the government's favourite swizzes to massage the books is the private finance initiative, leaving debts off the public sector borrowing requirement, in order to lower the reported level of expenditure. Now the Minsitry of Defence has been able to live up to the Blair administration's wish to be at the "heart of Europe" using the private French initiative.

If you cast your mind back a couple of years, the government wished to burnish its security credentials by hyping the construction of two new aircraft carriers flying the flag. Such ideals soon sank under the predictable weight of budget overruns and overambitious tendering.

Hoon has decided, that if the French, famous constructors of the floating kettlemobile, the Charles de Gaulle (it floats and you can boil a kettle off its engines), throw in some money for a third aircraft carrier, this will allow the MOD to meet its original financial estimates. The aircraft carriers, based on conventional propulsion, will be 285 metres long, 58,000 tonnes, and will enter service between 2012 and 2015, just when they become obsolete.

Whilst this may be advantageous to ourselves in terms of cost, the French view the joint programme as another development that ties Britain more closely into an integrated European defence programme.

The president of the National Assembly's defense committee, Guy Teissier, said the decision was "first of all political - because on the diplomatic level it opens up the possibility of Franco-British cooperation and supports the establishment of a European defense with Europe's foremost military power."

This is an example of how the Blair tightrope between Europe and America is kept taut by building relationships with both sides and encouraging them to understand that they need Britain in order to achieve their respective goals. This is a high-risk strategy since, if one side refuses to view Britian as an ally, we will lose the ties that we have built in that area. For the United States: that is military and intelligence co-operation; for the European Union (specifically France), it is defence programmes like the one above. Disengagement by others, rather than on out own terms, will leave us in an invidious and vulnerable position.

(21st February 2004, 12.18)


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